Earlier this week, I had the chance to preview a soon-to-be released movie, the latest production of Christian Hollywood.
Letters to God, directed by David Nixon, is the story of an eight-year-old boy, Tyler Doherty, whose confidante in his daily struggle against cancer is God. Tyler’s prayers take the form of letters, which he writes and mails daily. Brian McDaniels is a postman on the edge who has to decide what to do with the letters addressed to God. In the process, Brian, an alcoholic whose behavior resulted in the breakdown of his own family and loss of child custody, wrestles with his demons and uncertain faith.
We find out — almost incidentally through periodic flashbacks — that he is an Iraq war vet. We know from the outset of the film that he will turn to Jesus and be saved — in fact, everyone in the movie does. Ultimately, Tyler’s unwavering courage and grace in the face of his illness is a witness to faith that draws the community together and Brian back from the edge. Through Tyler’s suffering, all seem to find the answers to their lives.
The film is unapologetically evangelical. Although it starts off slow, we know from the beginning that “Jesus is the answer.” The movie clearly has flaws: It seems to have five endings and several subplots, all of which are resolved at the same time and in the same manner. Still, I admire the evangelical “holy boldness.” The movie takes a very real drama — one that many can relate to — and portrays those elements realistically.
Clearly, there is a role for Christians in Hollywood. As the former director of Act One and screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi has said, anti-Christian bigotry has penetrated the industry. Many Christians lament the fact that the gospel message seems not to have reached Hollywood — or, at least, that it has had little impact on it. Evangelicals are seeking to change that.
But I wonder if these sorts of movies ultimately effect the change in Hollywood that many Christians — including Catholics — would like to see. In a recent interview for Vatican Radio with USC Associate professor and film consultant Bobette Buster, I raised this question. She pointed out that this year’s Oscar Nominees included films that are not explicitly Christian but depict Christian values. Buster maintains that the key to a good film is always a good story: We love heroes and villains, and we all love when the good guys conquer in the end. She pointed out that the film Precious, though hard to watch and not a “fun family film,” actually can teach us about compassion, and give us insight into people and a sector of our society that deserve our kindness and compassion. She pointed out other films as well, such as Up and The Blind Side, that are well written and that can transmit insight and even good values through good story telling and production.
Buster pointed out that Hollywood itself is at a kind of crossroads. Avatar and other blockbusters sell for their special effects. They are light entertainment, but not always great stories. Other films with less spectacular effects, like Precious and The Blind Side, might be less spectacular but offer stories we can draw from.
I always find this debate interesting. Do we need an explicitly Christian Hollywood? Or can we consumers influence Hollywood by our choices? What do you think?