(2017—Director: Steve Gomer)
(out of 5 stars)
“You’re just a huckster, ain’t ya? A con man in a collar.” — Forrest (Barry Corbin) to All Saints pastor Michael Spurlock (John Corbett)
Potential spoilers below
Earlier this year, I gave a positive notice to The Case for Christ for its period aesthetics and matter-of-fact treatment of researching the historical Jesus, even though it still contained a few cringe-worthy moments of heightened emotion endemic to Christian cinema. I had hoped that I would experience a similar progression in the biographical drama All Saints. I did receive less of the cloying preachiness in the film’s honest recounting of how a church rebounded from the brink of closing down and being sold. Still, All Saints reminded me of what the subgenre still cannot overcome—uninspired and flat filmmaking.
Michael Spurlock (John Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) left his career in corporate sales to become an Episcopalian pastor. He did not expect his first job to be overseeing the final months of Smyrna, Tennessee’s All Saints church and then sell off the property. He changes his mind upon the arrival of Karen refugees from Burma at the church, led by Ye Win (Nelson Lee, HBO’s Oz, Spike’s Blade: The Series). To pay off the church’s mortgage, Spurlock must rally his small congregation and the new Karen members to turn the land into a working farm, despite the concerns of his devoted wife Aimee (Cara Buono, Netflix’s Stranger Things), stubborn congregation member Forrest (Barry Corbin, Netflix’s The Ranch, No Country for Old Men), and Bishop Thompson (Gregory Alan Williams, Remember the Titans).
A few shining qualities manage to stand out from All Saints’ optimistic yet ultimately unimpressive cinematic storytelling. John Corbett uses his natural charm as Michael to cover up the shades of “lone ranger” egotism bubbling in his soul as he struggles to keep the farm healthy though a rainless summer. Barry Corbin’s Forrest is easily the film’s standout supporting performance. His line deliveries and physical mannerisms made the theater audience around me laugh several times and his character sees the most substantial change, as is the case with many elderly curmudgeon characters. I also appreciate how director Steve Gomer and crew shot on location at the actual All Saints church, especially during the intense rainy harvest scene. Finally, the Karen refugees’s inclusion adds flavor to the film’s theme of community and brings awareness to the plight of refugees.
Yet in the film’s efforts to scale back the excessive preaching of average Christian cinema, All Saints still demonstrates that stale lack of imagination found in that subgenre. The camerawork rarely extends beyond delivering a basic visual look. The editing tends to occur earlier than it should, giving scenes like the start of a bedroom make-out session between Michael and Aimee an abrupt end when it cuts straight to Michael in his church office the next day. (If you are going to cut a marital make-out moment in bed in a Christian movie that soon, why bother including it in the movie at all?) Michael and Aimee’s son Atticus (Myles Moore) gets neglected as a character and while Aimee points out how Michael has devoted less attention his son once the farming starts, there is never a fitting reconciliation between parent and child. Atticus does get a bit of screen space, becoming friends with one of the Karen kids (played by one of the real Ye Win’s actual sons), yet even this feels tacked on. The worst technical element of All Saints, however, is its soundtrack. Early on, the dialogue levels vary from scene to scene, person to person, and the musical score intrudes into conversations that carry enough emotion on their own. One can tell with ease how sentimental and cloying a film will get by noting where it uses its score.
While The Case for Christ gave me many instances of its confident grasp on historical realities, All Saints falls well short of rising beyond surface-level emotions and a generic sense of community with a real-life story that is already inspiring by itself. Perhaps the one theological aspect that concerns me in All Saints and most Christian cinema is their strong dependence on miracles, random good Samaritans, and semi-overt threatening with eschatology (e.g. when Michael and Forrest negotiate with a tractor salesman) to forward the plot. We Christians should welcome the first two, but we must also remember that God is tied to the grounded reality, hardened truth, and good old common sense that shape our tasks and see them to completion during the vast majority of our lives. All Saints presents a quiet tug-of-war between these two mindsets underneath its story and still inclines towards the rare and extraordinary. Future Christian movies would do better to recognize the proper rarity of divine intervention and stress God’s work in the ordinary, not to mention the virtues of perseverance and solidarity that mark underdogs like the All Saints church and many others like it throughout the United States and across the world.
(Parental Note: All Saints has been rated PG by the MPAA “for thematic elements.” It has also been rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “mature themes, including references to atrocities and rape, and a marital bedroom scene.” A married couple kisses in bed briefly and flirt in a few lines throughout the film. Refugees from a war-torn country allude to past traumatic experiences like death and sexual assault. An intense harvest scene in the rain takes place late in the film.)