|In his first feature film, the award-winning "Flywheel," writer/director/actor Alex Kendrick assembled an entertaining, spirited film with an intentional Christian message that managed to inspire while also preaching, teaching and reaching its intended audience of Christians from all walks of life. "Flywheel," though, too often felt like a center stage for Kendrick as he preached, prayed and professed humility and surrender while all too often putting himself in the spotlight. The supporting characters were largely inconsequential, and the film had nary a chance to reach a wider, non-believing audience.
Kendrick, it seems, has learned a thing or two since his first film and returns with "Facing the Giants," a family-friendly drama about a high school football coach whose divinely inspired new team philosophy becomes the tool through which he, his family and his team learn to face the giants in their lives.
In his six years of coaching, Grant Taylor (Alex Kendrick) has never had a winning season at Shiloh Christian Academy. Even at Christian high schools. the boosters must be pleased, the bills must be paid and parents want to see their children win...after hearing a secret meeting between parents and one of his assistance coaches, Taylor reaches a point of desperation. His life is a mess, his house is falling apart, his car barely runs, he's about to lose his job and, it seems, after four years of trying his wife, Brooke (Shannen Fields), has been unable to get pregnant.
Much like in "Flywheel," reaching the point of desperation for the lead character results in soul-searching, prayer, discernment and, finally, the realization that somehow he has turned away from doing God's will and must again center his life on God if he is to find light in the midst of this darkness. In "Flywheel," this meant taking business practices filled with manipulation, lies and deceit and turning his used car dealership into a dealership of service, honesty and ethics. In "Facing the Giants," it means that Taylor's all consuming dedication to winning, or shall I say fear of losing, must be refocused to a dedication to serving God, win or lose, through football.
I must confess that about 1/4 of the way through "Facing the Giants," I was squirming. I found myself thinking "Man, hasn't Kendrick learned anything since that first film?" There he was again, hogging the limelight with melodramatic shots, mini-monologues and a score that would have made the audience for "Remember the Titans" proud. Quite honestly, I found it all rather nauseating and was seriously thinking "Facing the Giants" was headed for C-/D+ territory.
Then, something happened. Her name is Brooke.
Whereas the wife in most sports films is mostly a secondary character good for, at most, one or two scenes of "rah rah" support, in "Facing the Giant" Kendrick painted a woman of strength, of heart and of true conviction. As portrayed by Shannen Fields, in her feature film debut, Brooke is uncommonly graceful, tender, faithful and strong. She is the Christian woman every Christian man dreams of marrying. Her performance here, especially in their scenes together, instantly elevated and calmed Kendrick's own performance. Fields, the real life wife of Sherwood Christian Academy's head football coach, offers one of 2006's best debut acting performances.
From the first moments that Fields appears onscreen, "Facing the Giants" goes from a predictable, even plodding, film to an electric, exciting and inspirational film about faith, hope and the power we all have in each other's lives to inspire and empower.
Kendrick, too, suddenly comes to life and offers a performance, quite honestly, of which I wouldn't have even believed he was capable. Whereas his performance in "Flywheel" felt, at times, stilted and self-conscious, it is as if Kendrick truly surrenders to this character with a fire and intensity that is truly a joy to behold. A scene in which he challenges his most popular player, Brock (Jason McLeod), to push himself beyond what is truly possible is one of this year's most intimate yet exciting expressions of transcending one's own life for something even greater.
Perhaps it is his own newfound comfort onscreen that allows Kendrick to surround himself with a strong cast of supporting players ranging from his assistant coaches, JT (Chris Willis) and Brady (Tracy Goode), to players such as walk-on David (Bailey Cave) and Matt (James Blackwell) among many others. Unlike "Flywheel," each supporting character is fleshed out and, in turn, the actors are given a chance to flesh out their characters onscreen. The end result is that, onlike the recent cardboard "Gridiron Gang," the kids in "Facing the Giants" are kids you will care about and invest yourself in emotionally.
It is difficult to review "Facing the Giants" without acknowledging the true vision of ministry held within Sherwood Pictures, a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Alex Kendrick, along with his brother Stephen (who co-wrote this script), are associate pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church. Kendrick's first film, "Flywheel," was produced for the mind-bogglingly low sum of $20,000. While "Facing the Giants" comes in closer to six figures even it is a remarkably low-budget film in a sea of mega-budget blockbusters.
The other mind-boggling fact to consider? Remember "Bubble," that experimental film from Steven Soderbergh utilizing an entirely amateur film cast?
"Facing the Giants" was filmed utilizing an ALL volunteer cast, largely from Sherwood and area churches. Kendrick's onscreen wife, Shannen Fields, who gives such a wonderful performance? She is, in fact, the church's children's director and bookkeeper. Not one of these actors gets paid, and yet they all act as if their life depends upon it. Every one of the extras are Georgia locals, and even the cheerleaders are actual cheerleaders from a local high school. Even legendary University of Georgia coach Mark Richt volunteered his time for a cameo in the film.
Finally, profits from "Facing the Giants" are being used to build an 82-acre youth sports complex in Georgia that recently broke ground.
Ministry and film-making doesn't get much more grassroots than "Facing the Giants," folks.
When Kendrick and Sherwood Pictures sought permission from Provident Music Group to utilize music from popular Christian music acts Third Day and Casting Crowns, the screening that followed led to an unexpected distribution deal between Provident Films and, finally, Samuel Goldwyn Cos. This little film that could, filmed on a paltry budget with an all-volunteer cast, opened in nearly 500 theatres nationwide on September 29th, 2006.
The reality is that "Facing the Giants" will not please everyone. There will be those who can't possibly deal with the idea of an overtly and unabashedly Christian film that prays, quotes scriptures, talks about Jesus and, yes, even preaches. That is a shame, because they will be missing one of 2006's cinematic gems. While I wouldn't dare call it a perfect film, I would be so bold as to call it a film that ministers in the way that a Christian should minister. It ministers without condescension, but also without hesitation. It ministers without aggressiveness, but with wholehearted assertiveness. It ministers with a tenderness and heart that are absent far too often even in today's Christian films.
There are films that you appreciate not because they win awards or capture box-office crowns, but because they become larger than life and capture your heart. "Facing the Giants" will capture your heart.