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REVIEW: ‘I Can Only Imagine’ is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen

REVIEW: ‘I Can Only Imagine’ is one of the most powerful I’ve ever seenBart Millard is a young boy with big dreams. Perhaps this 1980s kid will be a space pilot. Or a Jedi knight. Or a sports star.

Sadly, though, Bart’s father – always angry and often abusive – doesn’t share his son’s joy for life.

“Dreams don’t pay the bills,” his dad tells him. “Nothing good comes from it.”

To underscore the point, Bart’s father burns his son’s space helmet – the homemade one he made out of cardboard – in an outdoor barrel.

Such hate-filled antics are not uncommon. During the day, Bart endures his father’s verbal and physical abuse. At night, Bart lies in his bed and listens to music, hoping that his unstable father – and his belt – simply stay away.

Bart is living a nightmare, and it doesn’t improve during his high school years, either. When Bart’s father breaks a kitchen plate over his teenage son’s head, Bart realizes he’s had enough. He leaves home with dreams of being a singer – and with the hope that he’ll never see his father again.

The film I Can Only Imagine (PG) opens this weekend, detailing how MercyMe’s Bart Millard became inspired to write the 2001 song In Can Only Imagine, which remains one of the most popular tunes in the history of contemporary Christian music.

It stars newcomer J. Michael Finley as Millard, Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid (The Rookie, Soul Surfer) as Millard’s father, Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein) as his grandmother, and country music artist Trace Adkins as Millard’s manager.

The movie follows the unlikely rise of MercyMe but also gives us an Apostle Paul-like conversation story in the process. As Millard’s character says at the beginning of the film about his father, “If Christ can change that dude, he can change anyone.” In the final years of his life, Millard’s dad – the same “monster” who whipped Bart so bad that he once had to sleep on his stomach – found the Lord.

I Can Only Imagine is the fourth film from directors Jon and Andrew Erwin, who also made Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out and October Baby. It’s also their their best movie yet. The screenplay is gripping, the soundtrack is perfect, and the performances by Quaid and Finley had me squirming, laughing and crying. It’s one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen – so much so that I gave it five out of five stars.

It’s family-friendly, although it might not be appropriate for small children. (More on that below).

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal/moderate. We see a young and scared Bart lying in bed, listening to his father scream at his mom. As a young boy, Bart takes a swing at his father; his father grabs him, pushes him to the floor and considers punching him — but doesn’t. Later, when Bart is a teenager, the father breaks a plate over his head. After Bart leaves home and returns, we hear him describe one of his beatings to his father. The conversations between Bart and his father are uncomfortable to watch, but are necessary for the story.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

None. A young girl kisses a young Bart on the cheek.

Coarse Language

None.

Other Positive Elements

Tons of them, but most occur in the film’s final 30 minutes. Let’s keep this spoiler-free. You won’t be disappointed.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Bart’s mom leaves the family to escape the father’s abuse. We see someone pass out at a restaurant.

Life Lessons

I Can Only Imagine gives us lessons on regret, forgiveness, redemption, hope and the power of the Gospel.

Worldview

Viewed from a worldly perspective, it’s easy to scoff at the central message of I Can Only Imagine and proclaim: “Any man who beats his family doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” And that’s true. Bart’s dad didn’t deserve forgiveness. But neither did Paul after he jailed Christians and watched them murdered. Or Peter after He denied Christ. Or David after he committed adultery and had a man killed. None of us deserve forgiveness. None of us are righteous before a Holy God (Rom. 3:10-12).

But the Gospel message is powerful because of is power. It’s not limited to the “little” sins. It covers the “big” ones, too.

The Good News is for the whole world – even for the worst among of us. Even for an abusive father who finds redemption in his final moments of life.

What I Liked

Bart’s quirky actions. The movie’s redemptive theme. I could watch the final 30 minutes over and over again. Also, the period music from the 1980s, along with the rest of the soundtrack, complement the film well. Finally, Quaid, Finley and Adkins are marvelous in their roles.

What I Didn’t Like

Nothing.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you were God, which sins would you refuse to forgive? Why?
  2. What can we learn about the gospel by studying the life of Bart’s father?
  3. Why do you think the song I Can Only Imagine was (and is) so popular?
  4. Could you have forgiven Bart’s father? Why did he come around to forgive his dad? How does sickness and death impact our ability to forgive and heal?

I Can Only Imagine is rated PG for thematic elements including some violence.

Entertainment rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language. 

— Michael Foust

This review first appeared at the Southern Baptist TEXAN and Wordslingers OK.

Michael Foust View All

I blog about fatherhood and have an awesome family. I also really like popcorn.

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