Overcomer: The Slightest Improvement, by Tyler Smith

Overcomer is director Alex Kendrick’s best film to date. The story structure, the dialogue, the acting, the cinematography; it’s all much more self-assured than in his previous films. Having kicked off his directing career with the low budget Flywheel in 2003, Kendrick has slowly improved in all aspects of filmmaking. That’s always exciting to watch, but here it comes with a caveat. Kendrick, while undeniably improving, still has a long way to go to fully realize his artistic vision. He may be starting to grasp cinematic language, but he’s far from fluent. 

The story involves John Harrison (Kendrick), the basketball coach at a thriving Christian high school, trying desperately to keep his team together as the nearby factory has shut down, putting many players’ parents out of work. As enrollment plummets, the school implements severe budget cuts, requiring Harrison to take on double duty, now coaching the cross country team, as well. The “team” consists of a single runner, Hannah (Aryn Wright-Thompson), whose athletic potential seems limited by her asthma. Meanwhile, John encounters Thomas (Cameron Arnett), a blind man dying of diabetes in the hospital. As the two become close, John is forced to question his priorities and sense of self.

This story definitely has more focus than Kendrick’s previous films. The events are centered primarily around John or Hannah, allowing us the time necessary to empathize with both of them. The film does still meander, though, usually in order to restate premises, or to shoehorn in clumsy comic relief. The film may be more focused, but it is not necessarily more streamlined, resulting in a running time that is easily fifteen minutes longer than it needed to be. 

Such is the result of a film that doesn’t seem to trust its audience. Rather than provide the necessary story elements for the audience to draw their own conclusions, Kendrick chooses to do all the work himself, explaining the themes of the film, and then restating them, just for good measure. In this respect, Kendrick has most certainly not improved. He has always said that his films are meant for the whole family. While that is a perfectly acceptable goal, it can have the unfortunate effect of simplifying the storytelling, lest the kids in the audience get left behind. And so, for the sake of the children, we return over and over to the same narrative beats until we are essentially treated as kids ourselves, being spoken to in a patronizing and condescending tone by the only adult in the room, who has a very important point to make. 

Where the film really excels is in its acting. Alex Kendrick himself has developed a solid sense of dramatic and comedic timing over the years and his performance is effortless and reliable. As Thomas, Cameron Arnett is able to elevate what is essentially a one-note character into something genuinely effecting. Many of the supporting roles are well-played and help to create a familiar, small town atmosphere (though, the less said about the flamboyant drama teacher, the better). Sadly, the weak link here is Aryn Wright-Thompson, who is able to play the various emotions required by her character, but isn’t strong enough to carry the film. She is an appealing on-screen presence, but often looks a little lost. 

The filmmaking itself is competent, but rarely moves beyond basic functionality. While Kendrick is clearly much more comfortable with the camera and is starting to understand character-driven editing rhythms, there is no real style to the film. Rather than treating the camera as a tool with which to enhance or comment on the story, Kendrick uses it only as a means to capture it. If I were to describe the visual aesthetic of the film, I don’t know that I could. Everything is just so straightforward and overt. 

This has always been the major pitfall for faith-based films. Often produced primarily as ministry tools, these films put message above all else. Subtlety is pushed aside in favor of clear, obvious sermonizing. Artistic style is nonexistent, so as not to distract from the director’s intended message. Some may find this refreshing, but many more will be frustrated. Certainly this is a film meant for Christians first and foremost, which is not inherently a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with making a film for a specific demographic. But if doing so means relying too much on their good will and forgiveness, the end result will be a movie that challenges neither the artist nor the audience.

Overcomer has already performed well at the box office and certain Christian viewers are hailing it as an inspiration. And while I may appreciate Alex Kendrick’s more personal approach to filmmaking – as opposed to the calculating, pandering films of Pure Flix – I’m still waiting for him to trust his audience enough to engage in a little more artistry. He has improved as a filmmaker, but until he is willing to grapple with the full potential of cinema – beyond just being the artistic means to a thematic end – Alex Kendrick will continue to produce sub-par films aimed at only the most forgiving of Christian viewers.

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