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On its face, Jason Naumann’s “Jesus People” seems like it’s trying to do to contemporary Christian music what Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman” did to community theater. Using the mockumentary format, Naumann details the rise and fall of a Christian band called Cross My Heart. And though Naumann and writers Dan Ewald, Rajeev Sigamoney and Dan Steadman get a lot of mileage out of mocking certain aspects of the conservative Christian mindset, the film also offers a thoughtful moral about the importance of embracing one’s true nature .
In the film, petty but good-hearted Pastor Jerry (Joel McCray) decides to start a Christian pop group as a way to reach out to his secular leaning son Eli (Chris Fennessy) after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. To achieve his admittedly far-fetched goal, Pastor Jerry recruits disgraced Christian singer Gloria (Edi Patterson), clueless local beauty queen Cara (Lindsay Stidham), unnerving true believer Zak (Damon Pfaff), and sensible youth leader Ty (Richard Pierre-Louis). At first, “Jesus People” seems like a farce, with the various stereotypes bumbling their way through recording and promoting an atrocious pop song but midway through the film, things take a turn.
The humiliations and moral degradations pile up until it becomes impossible to laugh at the film’s diluted egotists. It becomes clear that instead of taking shots at self-righteous Christians, the film is really interested in hammering into self-absorption. The Christians in the film aren’t undone by their blind devotion but rather by their overwhelming need to breakout of their unexceptional lives. “Jesus People” follows a seemingly trite perils-of-fame-seeking arc but in a compelling twist, the film eschews a cheap reaffirmation-of-faith ending. Some of the cast leave the film as committed Christians and others come to find happiness after leaving religion behind and no judgments are offered either way.
That ambivalence sets the film apart from its inspirations but it also makes it unsatisfyingly uneven. Because of the terminal illness subplot, Pastor Jerry’s quest to produce non-secular entertainment comes off as pathetically tragic rather than amusing. And the jabs at Christian entertainment culture, while frequently hilarious, are undercut by regularly having Ty point out how absurd everything is. If Naunamm and his collaborators had more faith in the audience’s ability to get the joke, the film would have worked a lot better.
As comedy, “Jesus People” could have used some tighter editing. As Christian pop culture satire, it could have used a little more edge. As drama about the place of faith in everyday life, the film would have benefited greatly from a more concise narrative. But the film is incredibly charming and its use of the mockumentary feels incredibly mature throughout. It’s the kind of movie that has enough good bits to blunt the sharp edges and enough potential to make you want to see what the filmmakers do next.