A shallow, albeit laugh inducing film poking fun at the commercialization of Christianity.
Believe Me marks director Will Bakke’s first foray into fiction film after two documentaries, One Nation Under God and Beware of the Christians. Both of these films attempted to explore Christianity’s place within modern society, by asking people on the street about their beliefs. Believe Me takes a similar introspective look at Christianity as it follows four college students and their attempts to raise funds for their university tuition by embezzling funds through a fake Christian charity.
After finding out his scholarship has run out Sam (Alex Russell) decides to set up his own fake charity Get Well Soon. The charity targets philanthropic Christians, supposedly to raise money to help fight poverty in Africa, when in fact Sam is using the charity as a front to raise money for his tuition fees at university. His friends agree to go along with his scheme on the condition that they get their own cut of the money, taken from the donations. After a chance encounter with a representative from a major Christian Ministry, Cross Country which helps raise substantial funds for Christian charities, Sam and his three friends Tyler (Sinqua Walls), Pierce (Miles Fisher) and Baker (Max Adler) find themselves on tour with the company traveling across the country, and speaking in front of thousands of people trying to persuade them to donate money to his fake charity.
One of the difficulties of dealing with a plot where the characters carry out an amoral act, stealing in the name of charity, is giving the characters a degree of likability. In lieu of likability, even a degree of uniqueness would make the characters more interesting to watch, but in the case of Believe Me the film’s leads are rather bland. Bakke tries to emulate the laid back college humor of Judd Apatow films, but his characters often come across as one-dimensional and consequently the jokes fall flat. The most pertinent example of this lack of depth, is in the character of Tyler, whose sole purpose is apparently to act as conscience provoker to Sam. There is also a strange encounter with a college professor (Nick Offerman), who breaks down in front of Sam, which doesn’t work. It’s an odd scene that may well be at home on an awkward office comedy such as Parks and Recreation (which Offerman also stars in) but is at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.
However, Believe Me really hits its stride when focusing on the satirical take on Christian commercialization. Each of the leads, who engage in preaching to packed stadiums, practice certain stances to provoke the audience. This includes the ‘Shawshank’, where they hold both arms in the air and look to the heavens as in the famous film Shawshank Redemption and the “Gecko” in which they hold both hands flat towards the ground, like the lizard basking in the sun. The Christian rock singer Gabriel (Zachary Knighton) who joins them on the charity tour is also good fun and helps inject the film with much needed charisma. Johanna Brady also works well to elevate her character from just being Sam’s love interest and provides the emotional backbone to the latter half of the film. Equally, Miles Fisher who plays Sam’s rich friend Pierce, breaks through the confines of the ‘rich boy’ stereotype and as the film develops easily becomes one of the film’s most interesting characters.
Hidden beneath the comedy and gentle drama of Believe Me is a potentially more interesting and darker film. This is particularly the case with Christopher McDonald’s tour leader Ken, whose morals seem to be just as adrift as Sam’s despite appearances. Furthermore, the satire that Believe Me does present of the commercial Christian roadshows, in which people are arguably duped into believing what they are told to believe, is such a rich source material it’s a shame that Bakke decided to not go further and delve deeper into the inner workings of the roadshow.
Believe Me is a film which provokes laughs but too often misses its mark, particularly during the film’s opening sequences. It’s also a film which raises interesting questions around modern Christianity and particularly its relationship with capitalism. However, Bakke’s reluctance to answer any of these questions with anything other than ambiguous platitudes can prove frustrating. There is nothing wrong with ambiguity, especially when dealing with complex issues, but Bakke is so desperate not to preach that in the end Believe Me ends up being a film which says very little.