Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
In time for the Christmas season, Believe opens in theatres this weekend. But it’s not the ordinary kind of movie centered on Christmas even though it opens on a colorful Christmas pageant with several degrees of tacky, carnival gaudiness, but with a glimpse of the Nativity story being read to children.
Heartwarming as the film is in several parts, the annual Christmas pageant is one of the main problems in the small town of Grundy, Va. — problems because it looks like this year there will be no pageant. The town has been given this gift of a spectacular pageant to highlight their year as a gift from the Peyton family.
Matthew Peyton seems to be the town Scrooge since he plans to cancel the pageant — but against his will. He has inherited the business whose profits are nosediving, he has no money to put the pageant on, he’s being high-pressured to sell the company, and he’s facing a nasty strike. But Peyton wants to stick it out.
Just when things can’t get any worse, they do. His longtime friend Nancy, a medical doctor, tells him he’s self-centered, the town is whipped up against him, and he’s beaten to a pulp by hired thugs. Which leads to one of those providential meetings of a young boy named Clarence, who likes to be called CJ, and his mother. They live in a ramshackle warehouse-type of building turned into rooms for poor folks barely surviving.
CJ had plans to play the angel Gabriel at the pageant and believes in miracles — somethings Peyton doesn’t share knowing the situation he’s in. But he has found a new friend, and the boy’s mom Sharon tells him more than once, “Sometimes things happen for a reason.”
Naturally they do, and naturally there’s a reason why their paths converge at this dismal time in Peyton’s life. Although things continue getting worse, Ryan O’Quinn who plays Peyton keeps the character from becoming an exaggeration. He evokes empathy for the guy whose heart really wants to grow in the right way.
In fact, some of the lessons he hears at different steps along the rocky road are solidly Christian messages, sometimes taken from the Bible, yet woven seamlessly into the story and come naturally from the characters and but never as heavy-handed preaching.
“All things are possible to those who believe” are Christ’s words from the gospels, of course. There’s mention of the importance of prayer in short, positive ways. One of those times Sharon tries telling some that all prayers are answered. “Not always answered the way you want, but always answered.”
In a beautiful short scene after Peyton has shown glimmers of genuinely caring for other people, friend Nancy calls him a “righteous man.” The key here is her beautiful definition of righteous: “Righteous means right action, no matter the consequences.” But Peyton quickly denies it: “No I’m not. I’m just selfish and weak” and has “an inheritance I never deserved in the first place.”
Then O’Quinn continues with a moving explanation of his grandfather’s influence on him, an orphan, who showed hope is never lost, and how during their nightly prayers together his grandfather told him “God is good.”
Another scene even has a car driving by a modest “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” sign.
There are a number of these moving moments that are a cut above the average drama. Writer-director Billy Dickson was right on the mark with these scenes and with characters. So too with the filming of them since he was also director of photography. There’s no hyper-drive editing to distract from the important thoughts and revelations taking place. Dickson trusts the actors to carry the scene with the emotions and conversation, which all of them do admirably, including Danielle Nicolet as Sharon and Shawnee Smith as Dr. Nancy.
In a beautifully written scene answering Peyton’s question why she isn’t doing something better for the boy, Nicolet has a touching answer about what true blessings are, and how she has “love, strength, courage” for example. It’s a step to his conversion which you’ll have to watch to see how it takes place.
One more thing the film treats — again in a natural way — are the virtues of faith, hope and charity.
Isaac Ryan Brown as CJ is winning, but he can be a bit overactive. David DeLuise captures the essence of a nasty politician without tumbling over into caricature.
Believe is not sappy or syrupy. In fact, it has undercurrents of a mystery, too, since little-by-little we start seeing layers of something underhanded and criminal going on that is ultimately affecting the Christmas pageant. Enough said — but it’s easy enough to spot those hints before they begin coming out into the open, as you know they will. But to wrap things up the quick, pat solutions come a tad too rapidly.
The film is rated PG since it’s not what you’d expect from a Christmas movie. It doesn’t appear geared for younger children. It’s a more mature focus is on the situation and the characters’ growth. Be forewarned near the beginning there is a graphic scene of a brutal beating that’s quite harrowing, and here and there some sinister characters appear in this drama.
The music is functional, and the new Christmas song by Matt Maher is not memorable. At the very end, the last number under the credits is totally out of character and changes the tone of what’s been going on. It was a personal spoiler.
But overall, the story leads to an ending that can be no less than ultimately heartwarming.