I Can Only Imagine Review - Inspiring, Ensemble Cast Shines in this Character Driven Film

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I Can Only Imagine, from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, presents the heartfelt and uplifting story of a song from up and coming Christian band, Mercy Me, that exploded across all charts making it the most played in history.

Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, I Can Only Imagine stars Dennis Quaid, J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll, Cloris Leachman, Trace Adkins, Tanya Clarke, Rhonda Griffis, David Norona, J.R. Cacia, Jason Burkey, Nicole Depont, Mark Furze, Kevin Downes, Randy McDowell, Priscilla C. Shirer, Jake B. Miler, with Taegen Burns as young Shannon and Brody Rose as young Bart.

I Can Only Imagine opens in a sound studio with a woman asking Bart Millard, played by newcomer J. Michael Finley, answering questions about a career making song, the lyrics for "I Can Only Imagine," he says was written in maybe ten minutes, the melody the same. And the female, whom we don't know yet explains the depth of the lyrics are born in ten minutes.

The film travels back to a young Bart, played by Brody Rose, who is supposed to be doing yard work for his grandma, played by Cloris Leachman, and in reality he is just blowing the leaves from one pile to another, swinging on the tire swing, and enjoying the sunshine and being a kid in Greenville, Texas.

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She pays him and off he goes, bicycling through the countryside, with another idea. Back home, we meet his dad, Arthur, played by Dennis Quaid, and his mom, Adele, played by Tanya Clarke. Dad is on the warpath, again, burning his football trophies, and breaking everything. They obviously have been through the abuse cycle before as they both back away and don't interfere as he takes Bart's just made treasure and throws it in the fire.

Minutes later he is lying in bed listening to the screaming of his mom being beaten. The next morning she wakes him and tells him of an adventure. Taking him to the sleep away camp the local church sponsors, he meets Shannon, played by Taegen Burns, and the two, to hear her explain, are meant to be, destined.

With the week over, a Bart making a new commitment to Christ, he arrives at home to find his mom is gone and the movers are taking her things. Over the week she left, and he immediately questions his dad and the two begin to fight.

The film progresses through high school, with Shannon, now played by Madeline Carroll, remaining and the two inseparable. An injury sidelines him from football and he is stuck fining a class to fill his time when she suggest Glee Club. He rolls in still in a wheelchair and meets the teacher, played by Priscilla C. Shirer who puts him in charge of the soundboard. Thinking he was alone, he puts on a tape and begins to sing. She overhears him, as his teacher casts him as Curly in Roger's and Hammerstein's Oklahoma and suddenly a star was born.

At this point Arthur is diagnosed with cancer and refuses treatment and refuses to tell anyone. Bart, after the success of Oklahoma his pastor gives him a singing gig that plays on the local radio. Graduation comes and Bart, fed up with the abuse of his Dad, who is evil, hateful and bitter, leaves. Soon he is in Oklahoma working for a theater doing sound and cables, when he overhears the band, who is minus a lead talk about giving up.

Bart, never one to shy away from saying his first, second and third thoughts in quick succession, is their new lead singer before they realized what was happening and Mercy Me was born.

I Can Only Imagine is genuinely uplifting, a spiritual film that doesn't shy away from Christianity or Christ or the evangelical culture.

Dennis Quaid takes this monster of a role in I Can Only Imagine and nails both sides as the old man, the bitter, evil, abusive, violent, mean spirited, and as the new man, the saved by God's grace, redeemed by the Blood, a good man, who lives with his own history, the spots, blemishes and darkness like an albatross.

And Quaid plays the transformed man,  so much so that as Bart is hit with a setback, in Nashville, he heads home unsure of what he will find, or why he feels the need to be back in that "situation." What he finds is a changed man, the father he wanted, and always imagined a "real" father should be. The father he loved.

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For J. Michael Finley, Bart, is a career making role. As this is his first feature, he was able to take his role and create memorable screen character. There will be no one who doesn't see this film, who can't recognize the Christian pretention when he heads back home. Who can't place themselves in his shoes as he is awaiting the Nashville verdict; or wishing they had gone home one last time. He is impressive.

And the young Bart, Brody Rose, hooks the viewers, as a child, suffering in this abusive home, with brief moments of peace and normalcy, respites in the darkness. He hooks us and is memorable. Young Shannon, Taegen Burns, is a beauty. She captures our hearts as she explains to a young Bart, how she has imagined their future.

Madeline Carroll, who plays older Shannon, has a long list of credits and was given a role that, while important, was secondary to his career and she was able to deliver the genuineness and importance of their relationship with these short insert scenes.

It was a delight to see Ms. Leachman. Her role was limited and she gave a convincing performance.

I Can Only Imagine will definitely get the evangelical box office bounce. It should. It tells a story so many have lived and haven't been able to escape the mental/emotional prison the abuse has banished them too and experience the healing power of Christ. I Can Only Imagine tells one man's story.

I Can Only Imagine is encouraging. It reaffirms the belief in the transforming power of Jesus Christ. The story inspiring, the ensemble cast impressive; the "religion" genuine, true, and purely presented.

I Can Only Imagine opens March 15, 2018. See it.


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