Ye of little faith likely won’t warm to “Believe,” an aggressively sincere but off-puttingly saccharine drama about a small-town businessman who regains his faith with a little help from an angel named Clarence. And before you ask: No, this isn’t a remake of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Actually, the Clarence here isn’t really an angel — rather, he’s a precocious youngster who wants to portray the Archangel Gabriel in a Christmas pageant — and the businessman owns and operates an auto-parts plant, not a savings and loan, although writer-director Billy Dickson edges him almost as close to financial ruin as George Bailey found himself in Bedford Falls. Aimed primarily at evangelical audiences seeking holiday-appropriate entertainment, “Believe” is lukewarm Capracorn more shamelessly sentimental than any film Frank Capra himself ever made.
Ryan O’Quinn plays Matthew Peyton, the stressed-out proprietor of Peyton Automotive Works, the last major business standing in an economically depressed Virginia community. Unfortunately, the auto plant is on the verge of bankruptcy, for reasons Peyton doesn’t quite understand. (Could he be the victim of in-house betrayal? Maybe.) Even more unfortunately, due to financial setbacks and a strike by workers, Peyton may be unable to provide his customary funding for the town’s Christmas pageant, a prospect that appears to anger the local citizenry more than the possibility of the plant’s closing.
After Peyton is badly beaten and abandoned on the poor side of town by hooligans eager to protect their paychecks or preserve the pageant, or both, he is nursed back to health by Sharon (Danielle Nicolet), a single mom whose background as a bookkeeper proves to be, well, providential. Also providing aid and comfort — her son Clarence (Isaac Ryan Brown), an indefatigably spirited youngster whose hyperactive manner suggests overindulgence in sugary sweets and caffeinated products.
Peyton insists that he is a hard-nosed capitalist who supports the Christmas pageant only because his beneficence is a contractual obligation to the town. Right from the start, however, it’s clear that his heart is located somewhere in the vicinity of the right place. (Whenever anyone describes the event as a holiday pageant, he quickly reminds them that it’s a Christmas pageant.) So it’s something far short of surprising when, during a winter freeze, he invites Sharon, Clarence, and all their poverty-stricken neighbors to leave their unheated slum dwellings and seek shelter at his factory.
And when some meanie — with, of course, a not-so-hidden agenda — maintains that zoning regulations prohibit the use of a factory as a homeless shelter, Peyton skirts the law by hiring his “guests” as replacements for the aforementioned striking workers. (We’re clearly not supposed to pay too much attention when someone indelicately describes these new employees as scabs.)
Given the film’s sidelong swipes at corrupt union bosses and intrusive business regulations, and its none-too-subtle message that faith-based charitable assistance is preferable to government handouts, “Believe” seems driven as much by conservative politics as Christian teachings. But that hardly qualifies as a mortal sin. What’s really difficult to forgive is the glacial pacing, the heavy-handed storytelling, and the gee-whiz sermonizing. (You could organize a drinking game in which players down a shot every time a character asserts, “Everything happens for a reason.”) Despite a few notable performances — O’Quinn and Nicolet are standouts — and respectable production values, “Believe” is little more than the cinematic equivalent of a good intention. And we all know what they are used to pave, right?