As divided as the two very different churches at its center, “The Second Chance” reps an uneasy marriage of spiritual conviction and dramatic expedience. Ambitious and sincere in the concerns it addresses — specifically, the challenges facing inner-city ministries and the human pettiness that hinders the gospel’s social-justice mandate — the crisply made feature delivers an involving if not always persuasive portrait of religious leaders in conflict. Released without fanfare or press screenings by Sony’s Triumph Films banner, pic has a considerable draw in topliner Michael W. Smith, but looks unlikely to match the studio’s “Left Behind” franchise theatrically or on homevid.
A household name among fans of contempo Christian music, multiplatinum recording artist Smith makes his feature debut as Ethan Jenkins, associate pastor at an affluent suburban megachurch called the Rock. The script (written by director-producer Steve Taylor, Henry O. Arnold and Ben Pearson) hints at a checkered past that is never fully explicated, but Ethan is now a modern-day prodigal son — a charismatic preacher and gifted musician who strikes some on the church board as too fresh by half.
In response, Ethan’s father, pastor Jeremiah Jenkins (J. Don Ferguson), sends him to spend a few weeks working at the Rock’s urban satellite, Second Chance Community Church. What follows is a clash of wills, cultures and ministry styles between Ethan and Jake Sanders (jeff obafemi carr), the church’s hotheaded and highly street-wise pastor.
A committed servant who specializes in tough love, Jake is embittered by the indifference of the Rock’s mostly white congregation and resentful of Jeremiah, a globe-trotting church planter who founded Second Chance 30 years ago. Jake openly mocks Ethan as a naive, pretty-boy rock star (who drives a Beemer, no less), taking him on a walking tour of the city that’s meant to wipe away his — and the audience’s — illusions about life in the ‘hood.
Trouble is, the portraits of tough reality that emerge — from a battered woman (Vilia Steele) who finds herself newly pregnant to a troubled teen (Calvin Hobson) trying to separate from his gangbanger brother — feel rather standard, which wouldn’t be a problem had they been better-developed and given more screen time.
Ultimately, “The Second Chance” favors a dominant white perspective while taking square aim at middle-class guilt, as embodied by the naively well-intentioned Ethan, who has difficulty reconciling his spiritual calling with his comfortable lifestyle. Frustratingly, no attempt is made to put a face on the Rock’s parishioners, who are presumably too cluelessly coccooned in privilege to be bothered with. The women here — namely, Jake’s wife Amanda (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and Ethan’s fiancee Valerie (Kenda Benward) — have little to do except stand around and act staunchly supportive.
Acquitting himself well in a soft role that conveniently plays to his musical talents, Smith works up a bickersome chemistry with carr, who makes Jake a magnetic study in barely concealed rage. Yet pic arguably goes too soft on the character, whose arrogant, belligerent attitude offers convincing proof that pride really is the deadliest sin. Though references to God are kept to a mainstream-friendly minimum, the story is subtly suffused with biblical images and parables — including a foot-washing in a church — that are both moving and unforced.
Shot in and around Nashville, pic has an authentically gritty air that sometimes feels at odds with the slickness of the material. Soundtrack is a very listenable blend of Christian tunes both familiar and new — including an original, “All in the Serve,” performed by Smith and written by Smith and Taylor — supplemented by the occasional burst of hip-hop.