Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 94 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is about a group of college graduates who go on a Christian ministry tour to steal money for themselves, so there is some language and a lewd sexual gesture, a crush between one of the college graduates and a girl working on the tour who is already in a relationship, some drinking (college students playing beer pong) and jokes about alcoholism, and the central question of whether Christians donate money to feel better about themselves or whether they donate money because they legitimately believe in the cause.
‘Believe Me’ questions why we believe in religion and what we get out of it, raising issues of whether faith is something that can be knowingly manipulated. The film has some interesting points, but the unevenness of its characters is an undeniable problem.
By Roxana Hadadi
As faith-themed movies become more prevalent, like last week’s “The Song,” “Believe Me” feels like a flipping of the script. The black comedy from filmmaker Will Bakke and co-writer Michael B. Allen, whose previous works (the documentaries “Beware of Christians” and “One Nation Under God”) have also tackled the different ways Christians practice their faith, considers why Christians believe in God, what they gain from charity, and whether their faith comes from inside of them or is dictated by others—even others who might not believe in what they’re actually preaching. The film raises some intriguing questions about our organized-religion system, but its ultimate deflection feels like a copout.
“Believe Me” focuses on college senior Sam (Alex Russell, of “Unbroken”), whose handsomeness and charm have clearly helped him roll easily through life. He’s the most popular and beloved member of their fraternity; he’s planning to attend law school in the fall; and all he has left to do is graduate … until a meeting with administrator Sean (Nick Offerman, of “22 Jump Street”), who informs him that he has a $9,211 tuition bill he needs to pay before he is allowed to graduate.
Panicked about the prospect, Sam has a brainwave when attending church with friend Pierce (Miles Fisher, of “J. Edgar”) that evening and learns that their mission trip has already raised $16,000 in a week. People will give money to causes they believe in, Sam realizes, and it’s fast, untraceable cash—so what if he were to create a fake nonprofit, collect donations, and then use those to pay off his tuition bill? People who donated will feel good about their philanthropy and will be none the wiser, so there’s no problem, Sam assures himself.
The next step, once Sam has already convinced himself that this terrible idea is a good one, is convincing his fellow fraternity brothers: Pierce, who is constantly in the hole because of his burgeoning gambling addiction, agrees readily; the aimless, dopey Baker (Max Adler, of “23 Blast”), says yes with “How many more chances are we gonna get to steal from people under false pretenses, as a family?”; and although the more conscientious Tyler (Sinqua Walls) is shocked by the idea at first, he eventually gives in once Sam promises that they’ll only skim the cash donations, and will actually donate checks and credit card payments to a real charity. What selflessness!
So with the fake nonprofit Get Wells Soon created and a falsified backstory that involves the four of them drilling wells in Africa for needy children (complete with Photoshopped images of an African baby in various states of danger from wild animals), after graduation the young men sign up with a large Christian ministry, Cross Country, to do 27 shows in 27 cities, preaching and gathering donations for their group. Cross Country’s executive director, Ken (Christopher McDonald, of “Not Fade Away”) is smitten with the guys, who he nicknames the God Squad, because of how their sermons galvanize people into giving, but not everyone is convinced: Sam’s love interest, Callie (Johanna Braddy, of “Paranormal Activity 3”), wonders if they’ve ever even been to Africa, and her boyfriend, tour musician Gabriel (Zachary Knighton), is also suspicious. And as the cash keeps rolling in and the boys become more knowledgeable about the Christianity they’re falsely preaching, Sam’s morality starts to catch up with him—jeopardizing not only his promise to his friends that they would never get in trouble, but maybe transforming his own belief about faith, too.
“Believe Me” throws a lot of questions out there, and they’re good conversation-starters for viewers: When Sam says “sometimes people do want to be lied to,” does he have a point? When he repeats lines from a preacher’s sermon and repurposes them for his own ends (“Give in a way that reflects the faith that you claim”), is he plagiarizing or spreading the gospel? Does his argument that “saving Africa is as popular to Christians as Jesus Christ himself” have any merit? When he and his friends decide to “study” Christians to make their scheme more effective and they wonder “Do they have any hobbies other than God?”, is that a reductive analysis of an entire group of people? Overall, they’re pointed queries that both work well in the context of the movie and can create open-ended discussion afterward, which is a triumph for a faith-based film (most of which unfortunately end with a sense of rigid finality, like the aforementioned “The Song”).
What is most unfortunate about “Believe Me,” though, is the way the film’s conclusion sidesteps an important question: What does Sam believe? We see him vacillate throughout the film, going from charismatic to guilt-ridden to repentant, but the final scene is indeterminate in a way that makes the preceding character development seem almost immaterial. Also frustrating is Bakke’s tendency for slow-motion scenes (a frat party with flipped-over Solo cups and beer-guzzling college students; a party in the foursome’s hotel room where they throw cash everywhere and dance gleefully) and underwritten characterizations of Pierce and Baker, who never get the same narrative arcs as Sam or Tyler.
But the strength of “Believe Me” is in its simultaneous willingness to poke fun at aspects of Christian religion (like when Gabriel sings a song that is the word Jesus repeated 16 times, because “This song is supposed to be about Jesus, so what are all those other words doing in there?”) but never belittle the people who truly believe in it. The ending feels like a missed opportunity and there are storytelling shortcuts, but what “Believe Me” does right is start a faith-based conversation that can continue long after the film is over.
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