The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I Can Only Imagine

A confession: I didn't pay close attention to MercyMe's “I Can Only Imagine” when it was a hit back in 2001. I thought of it as “that overplayed song that's going to make me lose my mind if I have to hear it one more time.” The faith-based drama of the same name relates the details behind the song's creation. It's an inspiring tale of hardship, determination, and redemption. If you love the song, the movie is certain to capture your heart. If not, it might just change your mind.

Newcomer J. Michael Finley makes a winning debut as Bart Millard, MercyMe's lead singer and the man who wrote the song. The heart of the film is his rocky relationship with Arthur (Dennis Quaid), his physically and emotionally abusive father. Flashbacks show some of the torment he endured as a child and teenager. As an adult, Bart gets as far away from Arthur as possible, pursuing the singing career that his father scoffed at. Interweaving with the main story are subplots involving his bungled romance with lifelong love Shannon (Madeline Carroll) and MercyMe's attempts to gain a foothold in the music industry.

It's not a spoiler to say that Arthur finds faith as he grows older. Bart is inspired to write his famous song, in part, because he watches the man he thought could never change somehow manage to. While his own faith is rock solid, seeing someone so unlikely be thoroughly transformed by a belief in God causes him to re-evaluate what he thinks he knows. Other elements, which would constitute spoilers, contribute to the way both men evolve.

I Can Only Imagine works, in part, because the song really is something special. It's a touching reflection from a man thinking about how he'll react when he reaches Heaven and sees the Lord he's long worshipped up close. Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin (Woodlawn, Moms Night Out) emphasize the way Bart holds back his entire life, having embraced the “you're not good enough” message Arthur repeatedly instilled in him. The songs he writes for MercyMe are perpetually on the cusp of something, yet lack the X-factor that would lift them out of obscurity. Only when his faith is strengthened by reconnecting with Arthur is he able to break free, penning something both heartfelt and catchy.

Finley is very good in the lead role, capturing Bart's insecurities without overplaying them. He brings sincerity, which perfectly anchors the movie. Quaid, meanwhile, avoids most of the typical abusive jerk cliches, credibly bringing Arthur's dysfunction alive. Scenes between the two actors have an effective slice-of-life feel. That being the case, it's regrettable that most of the other characters are one-dimensional, here basically to execute their primary function. Trace Adkins, for instance, plays the manager who takes on MercyMe; he has little to do aside from dispense advice and issue tough love declarations. Cloris Leachman is even less fortunate, given almost nothing to do as Bart's grandmother.

As with many faith-based films, there are moments that border slightly on being hokey. A climactic performance of the title tune, which utilizes the cliché of someone “unexpectedly” showing up for another person's big moment, is one example. Elsewhere, you can feel the film stretching the truth to fit an inspirational formula. Nowhere is that more true than in the fact that the real Arthur died when Bart was 18; the movie allows him to have a relationship with his adult son.

Despite these issues, I Can Only Imagine gets the core things right. Rather than beating the audience over the head with a religious message, the Erwin brothers let you come to it naturally, simply by showing how a connection to God can – and does – inspire people to be better. The father/son dynamic is depicted with insight, both in the negatives and the positives. These strengths are more than enough to make the movie as entertaining as it is uplifting.

I Can Only Imagine understands the passion that goes into writing a good song, as well as the way it can impact those who hear it.

( out of four)

I Can Only Imagine is rated PG for thematic elements including some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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