I can only imagine why distributors Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate made the decision seemingly to hide, from most critics at least, their new faith-based film I Can Only Imagine. It became a surprise hit this weekend, making around $17 million, way over-performing estimates and earning an A+ CinemaScore audience rating. Apparently they had no faith themselves, at least as far as reviews go. Does this sound like a film where you try to keep critics at bay, especially since the precious few who did see it have it in positive territory over at Rotten Tomatoes?

Deadline

I decided to find out for myself and caught it over the weekend at a commercial theater. I can only add to the good vibes it has been getting since that opening, with a bigger expansion coming later this week. It lifts the genre. In fact, until last week I hadn’t heard of the film, the song from which it got its inspiration and title, the group MercyMe that performed it or its lead singer Bart Millard who wrote it.

With a mixed track record, faith-based films can be either life-affirming or like sitting through a sermon no one asked to attend. As I say in my video review above, in the case of this music biopic, it definitely is the former. It doesn’t attempt to hit you on the head or preach to the choir. Here it is really all about the choir, or rather the music itself. This 2001 song became the biggest-selling Christian single of all time and led to the triple-platinum success of MercyMe’s debut album and, eventually, 21 other No. 1 Christian songs. The film from directors Andrew and Jon Erwin uses his recently published memoir as a guide to Millard (played by Broadway star J. Michael Finley) recounting his miserable childhood at the hand of a “monster” father portrayed with intense rage by Dennis Quaid.

Due to his father Arthur’s constant abuse, Millard’s mother abandoned him and the family when he was still young. He grew up with his father and endured constant pain and rejection. It was only when he discovered his musical talents that he was able to fly away. A trip to a praise camp also helped him discover God, as well as girlfriend Shannon (Madeleine Carroll), but Millard would take flight from both before finding redemption and being able to forgive. He hits the road and hooks up with a band, which leads to a meeting with a manager and Christian music producer named Brickell (played by country music superstar Trace Adkins). With his guidance, Millard finally finds the key to writing the song that would become the biggest ever in the Christian genre.

Not since 1977’s You Light Up My Life has there been the opportunity for an inspirational song like this in a film. The big difference is that this time it is the movie that is based on the song, rather than just something written for it. As a film with a strong message, I Can Only Imagine rarely strays over the line and hits all the right notes. Before he can write the lyrics that would transcend everything else and use music to help express religious devotion for millions of listeners, Millard has to go back home first and forgive the man who destroyed whatever self-worth and dreams he had. Finley and Quaid play these scenes beautifully and give the film added power, even if in real life Millard’s father died when he was 19, many years before the song was written.

Cloris Leachman is a warm presence as Millard’s grandmother, and his musical idols Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith (who apparently helped him along the way) are nicely played by Nicole Du Pont and Jake B. Miller. Adkins is superb in his non-singing film turn as the crusty but smart manager. Finley can really belt these songs out to the point where you wish there were more of them. Alex Cramer, Jon Erwin and Brian McCorkle wrote the script, which thankfully keeps the sermonizing to a minimum and gets to Bart’s essence, if not to the letter of actual events.

Producers are Mickey Liddell, Cindy Bond, Kevin Downes, Daryl C. Lefever and Peter Shilaimon. As noted, Roadside Attractions in association with Lionsgate have a real winner here. No need to hide this one.

Do you plan to see I Can Only Imagine? Let us know what you think.