Call it a faith-based tearjerker, and you won’t be far off the mark. Still, that blunt-spoken description of “I Still Believe” should be taken as not so much a dismissal of its unabashed sentimentality as an honest appraisal of the film’s potential to deeply affect its target audience.
Directors Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, the sibling filmmakers collectively billed as the Erwin Brothers, have proven quite adept at neatly balancing involving drama and spiritual uplift in such previous efforts as “October Baby,” “Woodlawn” and their crossover box-office hit “I Can Only Imagine.” Here, they amp the emotional power — subtly at first, then gradually more aggressively — with a “Love Story”-style scenario that is all the more potent for being based on real-life events.
Specifically, it is the story of popular Christian music artist Jeremy Camp (played by KJ Apa of TV’s “Riverdale”) and his beloved Melissa (Britt Robertson). In the world according to scripters Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn — who based their screenplay on Camp’s autobiographical book of the same title — Jeremy and Melissa meet cute in 1999 while attending California’s Calvary Chapel Bible College. He’s eager to become a singer-songwriter, so he seeks career (and spiritual) guidance from an established Christian music artist, Jean-Luc (Nathan Dean), who just happens to be a Calvary Chapel alumnus.
The good news: Jean-Luc is impressed by Jeremy and his music, and offers to mentor him. The bad news: Jean-Luc is kinda-sorta involved with Melissa.
Thanks to the immensely appealing performances by Apa and Robertson, it’s easy for the audience to take a rooting interest in the sometimes awkward, sometimes amusing development of the budding romance between Jeremy and Melissa. (Not surprisingly, considering the track record of the Erwin Brothers, the initial romantic triangle comes off as more wholesome than almost any romantic complication you’ll find in an average Hallmark Movie Channel production.) And as a result, we’re sitting ducks for an assault on our tear ducts when Melissa is diagnosed with cancer.
Anyone familiar with Jeremy Camp’s life and career will know what happens next. And, truth to tell, even people who know nothing about the guy, but watch the movie’s stirring trailer ahead of time, can guess the outcome. Even so, the ultimate impact of this slicky packaged romantic tragedy is difficult to deny. Cynics may cause painful headaches for themselves as they roll their eyes in response to the movie’s manipulations. But, then again, it’s more than likely that most cynics won’t buy a ticket to “I Still Believe” in the first place.
A minor complaint: Gary Sinise and country music star Shania Twain portray Jeremy’s supportive parents, and they make the most of thinly written parts. But it feels like an oversight on the part of the screenwriters that we don’t know Sinise’s character actually is a minister until well past the movie’s midpoint, when he — well, let’s just say he plays a significant role in the movie’s sweetest scene.