...shining light on the media, one review at a time
They say that practice makes perfect. The idea that improvement can come through repeated trial and error seems to be personified in the movies created by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, as each film they release is better than their last. This learning curve is especially evident in Courageous, which shows a significant improvement in filmmaking quality from the previous offerings. That said, the production values are still hit and miss, but what is more consistent is the film’s commitment to glorifying God and inspiring Christians everywhere to do the same.
As the Kendrick films before it, Courageous tackles a relevant topic that nearly everyone can relate to and that desperately needs the attention. In this case, the hot topic is fatherhood. Studies, which this film provides its viewers, show that disastrous results are likely to occur when a child is left without a present father—drugs, gang involvement, and imprisonment are among the likely fates.
Law enforcement officers Adam Mitchell and Nathan Hayes are confident they’re good fathers. After all, they stay with their families, provide for them, take them to church—they do a lot more than their fathers before them. For fellow officers, Shane Fuller and David Thomson, fatherhood isn’t the subject that tops their priority list. Shane is a divorced dad and blames his lack of involvement on a lack of child custody, while David is enjoying the single life too much to think about such things.
But what if a father’s involvement goes beyond the stats, which are impressive enough? Studies don’t measure the emotional scars of an abandoned child or the spiritual damage done by an immoral or negligent father. These are the deeper realities that Adam must face when his family is hit by sudden tragedy.
A tight-knit family of friends themselves, Adam’s revelations and soul-searching spills over into the lives of his comrades, and all four of the men find themselves grappling with what it means to be a good father and the consequences for failure. Along the way, Adam meets Javier Martinez, an out-of-work Christian man who joins the group of buddies and also takes on the father challenge.
Subtlety has never been the hallmark of the Kendrick brothers’ work, so there’s no danger that anyone will walk away from Courageous not having understood the message. In this case, the film gets away with the theme-pounding because fathers are indeed everywhere in life, giving some realism to the prevalence of fatherhood that is overtly all over every scene. However, announcing a theme is not a respected storytelling technique for good reasons. Here, the lack of depth and sophistication used to communicate the messages makes them easier to reject and harder to swallow in their exposed, non-artistic form.
Perhaps partially because of this tendency to beat the proverbial dead animal, the pacing of Courageous suffers under the weight of an overloaded story and inconsistent editing. It’s a daunting task to attempt an ensemble piece with no less than five characters’ stories to tell, and the filmmakers don’t quite make the grade. At times, the stories support each other, but they also often distract, compete, and leave the viewers without an uninterrupted story arch for any one character. In addition, the effort to balance all these stories packs another blow to the pacing, as viewers are haphazardly taken from one character to another, usually with no sense of method behind the choice of scene order.
The best filmmaking moments for Courageous come from the cinematography—the area in which the Kendrick team has made the largest leaps of progress through the years. In part due to better equipment, this advancement is pronounced and results in the first Kendrick film with some shots that are actually beautiful to watch and start to tap into the artistic visual potential of the film medium.
Another area of positive development in terms of production quality is the acting. While still dominated by non-professional actors, the familiar cast (several actors, including star/director Alex Kendrick, are from the Kendricks’ previous films) is incrementally learning the craft, and their growing experience is evidenced onscreen. Whereas in previous Kendrick films the acting was a real obstacle to portraying drama, emotion, or story, the performances in Courageous are far less cumbersome.
Alex Kendrick as Adam shows the greatest improvement from his first try at acting, as he gives a competent, though not particularly nuanced, showing in this film’s most challenging scenes. The diamond in the rough is Rusty Martin, who plays Adam’s son, Dylan. Only a teenager, Rusty Martin already has more film credits than most of the Courageous actors, and his performance shows the promise of a young talent.
The Courageous script also demonstrates growth in the scriptwriting department. While still lacking in several areas, the screenplay contains more realism in the dialogue and story that helps make the actors’ jobs easier. The plot itself, as well as much of its writing, shows creativity on the part of the filmmakers.
Perhaps the Kendricks’ greatest strength as writers and filmmakers is the humor that they bring to stories that could otherwise become too emotional and heavy. Though it’s not always clear how these light moments further the story, Courageous showcases this comedic talent, offering enjoyable moments of levity that both humanize the characters and break up the weightier content.
By far, the most laudable and powerful aspect of Courageous is the strength of its message. Never ashamed of the Gospel in their films, the Kendrick brothers unabashedly declare the truth of Scripture as it applies to fatherhood and the integrity with which Christians should live their lives. The salvation offered through Christ is made clear through the evangelism of the Christian characters’ actions and words, though they are also portrayed as flawed, but redeemed people.
The only potential problem with the movie’s challenge that men resolve to be better fathers is that the idea could be interpreted as a message of improving oneself, as if by merely deciding to be perfect fathers men can enable that reality. At one point, Adam says that such an endeavor will take “courage, courage, courage.” In reality, however, all the courage in the world can’t enable these men even to want to be ideal fathers, let alone achieve the goal.
They really need God and courage that only He can provide. The Kendrick brothers seem to know this truth, and, throughout the story, there are hints of acknowledging that the means for change comes only through God. This need for His grace, however, is the most subtle theme in the movie and may be at risk of being lost under the louder message of changing oneself through sincere commitment and personal gumption. But for the film’s predominantly Christian audience, this potential confusion likely won’t be an issue.
The only other warning that remains to be given is a caution to parents with young children. Courageous contains several scenes of peril, implied drug use, shooting, and gang violence. The violent scenes are handled without much graphic detail (characters are shown with small cuts and bruises after getting beat-up), which makes them not much of a problem for older youths who are mature enough to appropriately handle the themes and reality of violence in the world.
For those who enjoyed the Kendrick brothers’ previous films, Courageous is a must-see as their strongest movie to-date. Thanks to a story that is rooted both in the human experience and biblical truth, most viewers will be moved, entertained, and, by God’s grace, inspired. The Kendricks’ choice to make movies on their own, learning as they go rather than hiring Christian film professionals, has meant that the journey toward glorifying God with filmmaking excellence has been long and arduous. As a result, we likely have several more films to wait before their movies are on par with Hollywood’s quality and perhaps many more till artistry develops.
Yet God has clearly blessed these productions with visibility and a far reach that enables them to convey healing messages to a hurting population. In a secular world that grows increasingly hostile toward the Christian message and those who preach it, the Kendricks are boldly declaring God’s Word and principles for living in the most powerfully anti-Christian venue of our day—that effort is nothing short of courageous. If we want to see more Christian films, including those being produced that are of higher artistic quality but have less distributional clout, this is a courage that needs our support.
Check out these similar titles:
Fireproof (Sherwood Pictures, 2008)
Set Apart (Hemisphere Entertainment, 2009)
Fielder’s Choice (Hallmark Entertainment, 2005)