The debut theatrical release from FoxFaith, Fox’s newly formed subsidiary dedicated to Christian-themed pics, is a repurposed made-for-TV drama likely to play better on the home screen. Originally intended for cablecasting — the telltale credits reference a “teleplay” based on a “television story” — “Love’s Abiding Joy” intends to be uplifting, but more often is enervating, as it slowly catalogues triumphs over adversity on the frontier plains circa 1885. Blandly sincere pic may appeal to auds seeking family-friendly entertainment with religious underpinnings, or movie buffs desperate for anything that even remotely resembles an old-fashioned Western.
Appropriately enough for a period drama directed by Michael Landon Jr. — son of the star of “Little House on the Prairie” — “Joy” plays like an episode of his father’s long-running, much-beloved TV series. The big difference here is people speak about the healing power of prayer and the bountiful beneficence of God much, much more often.
Pic is based on the fourth novel in the “Love Comes Softly” series written by Christian author Janet Oke. (Three earlier books were adapted by Landon Jr. for the Hallmark Channel.) Settlers Missy (Erin Cottrell) and Willie LaHaye (Logan Bartholomew) are God-fearing folks who struggle to raise their family and maintain a cattle ranch. But their faith is sorely tested when tragedy (an infant’s death) follows upon hardship (a seemingly endless drought has diminished grazing land for cattle).
When mayor and land baron Samuel Doros (cunningly underplayed by John Laughlin) offers Willie a job as sheriff, the young pioneer reluctantly accepts the job. Reluctantly, that is, because his responsibilities include evicting friends and neighbors who have fallen behind on their loan payments to Doros.
On the other hand, Willie is well-placed to help Jeff (Drew Tyler Bell), his adopted son, when the teen develops a chaste crush on Collette (Mae Whitman), an equally smitten young lady on vacation from finishing school. Collette just happens to be the daughter of Doros, who –surprise! — disapproves of the budding romance. Worse, he expresses his disapproval in a most un-Christian fashion.
“Love’s Abiding Joy” may have its heart in the right place, but it’s glaringly out of place on megaplex screens. The stop-and-start pacing indicates careful planning for the easy insertion of commercials. And few of the actors look entirely at home in the period setting. With his styled hair and trimmed beard, Laughlin looks more like a GQ model than an Old West settler. And poor Whitman isn’t done any favors by costumes that often make her look like a small child playing dress-up in her mother’s clothing.
Pic overall is too pretty by half. Kevin Kiner’s musical score is ubiquitous and loud.