Faith-based films perform well, yet most have limited audiences. Small budgets equal low production value and B-list celebrities. Big talent, however, doesn’t guarantee big box office numbers as in Mark Wahlberg’s “Father Stu” which underperformed, while 2014’s “Heaven Is for Real” with Greg Kinnear raked in over $91 million. What’s the secret? There is none. All movies are held to the same standards. Christianity doesn’t give you a hall pass nor do A-list actors. “Jesus Revolution” sets the bar that all faith-based films should follow.
Written by Jon Gunn and Jon Erwin, the story features a teenage protagonist straight out of a Richard Linklater or Cameron Crowe film. Joel Courtney (“The Kissing Booth”) plays Greg, who lives in a small trailer on Newport Beach with his alcoholic mom Charlene (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). It’s 1968. Televisions are filled with news reports of anti-war protestors marching against the Vietnam War spurred by a youth movement centered in San Francisco involving hundreds of thousands of peace-loving young men and women who call themselves “hippies.”
Greg is fascinated by the long-haired youth movement who would quickly refer to him as a “square.” He attends a private military academy at his mom’s insistence but longs to be an average kid enrolled in public high school; There are no girls at the academy. That may explain why he hangs outside Harbor High filming students with his 8mm camera. “Hey, what’s your deal dude?” asks Charlie (Nicholas Cirillo), a hippie student who thinks Greg is a narc. We soon discover that Greg has a crush on a blonde-haired student named Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow) who quotes Allen Ginsberg (which equals true love in Greg’s eyes). She and Charlie invite Greg to join their group of freethinkers at a “happening” over the weekend.
The “happening” turns out to be Woodstock where Greg and Cathe rock out to Janis Joplin and listen to the “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” speech by Timothy Leary. It changes his life for the better and the worse. Greg’s story is the anchor that grounds “Jesus Revolution” which is based on Greg Laurie’s memoir. Most faith-based films are about real people and events like this one, but you wouldn’t know it, by watching the film’s trailer.
Apart from the “Based on a True Story” tag, “Jesus Revolution” is marketed like a cross between “Dazed and Confused” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” with Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride” and The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” blasting through the movie trailer. None of it is deceptive. The soundtrack which also features Rare Earth, Fleetwood Mac, Edwin Star, and America, punctuates the story that delivers inspiration by the buckets without preaching to the audience. Genius. Co-directors Jon Erwin, and Brent McCorkle deliver the first feel-good movie of 2023 with mass appeal that just happens to feature quite a few mass baptisms.
Kelsey Grammer plays Pastor Chuck Smith, whose story runs parallel to Greg’s. He ministers at the small non-denominational Calvary Chapel. His congregation is made up of older folks who usually doze off during service, their donations, however, keep the small ministry afloat. Pastor Smith’s adult daughter Janette (Ally Ioannides) believes he should reach out to the hippies also known as “Jesus freaks” who are after the same things as his church, peace, and love. He believes they are all on drugs and in need of a bath, not the good word. “When God walks in and brings me a hippie, I’ll ask him what it’s all about” he explains to Janette. Guess what? God listens.
Jonathan Roumie (who plays Jesus on the streaming series “The Chosen”) enters the story as hitchhiking Lonnie Frisbee who is picked up by Janette and brought home to meet the parents. God listens, remember? “What is going on?” asks Pastor Chuck. “You said you wanted a hippie” replies Janette. “This house has a very good vibe” comments Lonnie. It’s one of many funny scenes that balance the heavy drama in the film that doesn’t downplay the drug use by the hippie movement looking for answers; Many hit rock bottom before finding religion. Cathe and Greg’s story arc involves an overdose as they become distant, and we get a backstory into Greg’s dysfunctional childhood involving his alcoholic mom and an MIA father.
Every character in “Jesus Revolution” is flawed as we all are, so the film is bathed in authenticity. Once Pastor Chuck invites Lonnie and his hippie friends to worship with him at Calvary Chapel the congregation grows by the thousands as the church moves outdoors to a large tent to accommodate the crowd. Lonnie begins preaching alongside Pastor Chuck and the two begin holding mass baptisms at the local beach Pirate’s Cove. Eventually, Lonnie lets the celebrity go to his head and loses his way.
“Jesus Revolution” features solid performances especially Joel Courtney who made his feature debut at age 14 in J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” in 2011. While Kelsey Grammer and Jonathan Roumie may garner a majority of the film’s buzz (both are very good), it’s Courtney and Anna Grace Barlow who stand out. Production designer Aimee Holmberg and costume designer Anna Redmon effectively transport us back to the 60s, while the film’s inspirational message is subtly conveyed.
Now showing in theaters