It was in the first five minutes of Lifemark that I shed a tear for the first time, Marisa Lynae Hampton's young Melissa thoughtfully and tenderly exploring options for the baby growing inside her for which she feels unready and ill-equipped to guide into the world. Hampton's performance in these opening scenes sets the tone for a film that tackles a true story with warmth, respect, more than a little humor, and even quite a bit of dignity toward this young woman who finds herself in a difficult circumstance trying to make the best decisions she can.
After these opening scenes, we are introduced to 18-year-old David (Raphael Ruggero), a high school senior whom we quickly learn has grown up as the adoptive child of Jimmy (Kirk Cameron) and Susan (Rebecca Rogers Nelson). As portrayed by Ruggero in his first movie role, David is an immensely likable young man with some insecurities around being adopted yet also someone who understands this gave him this life that he loves including parents who adore him and a best friend, the always filming and always funny Nate (Justin Sterner), who may always be laughing but is also the kind of best friend we all want in life.
In other words, David has a good life.
From executive producers Kirk Cameron and The Kendrick Brothers - co-creators of Fireproof and The War Room - Lifemark is both a missional film and a richly human one. The film's essential story centers around David's world being turned upside down when his birth mother reaches out longing to meet the son she's held only once. Encouraged, and actively supported by, his adoptive parents, David moves gingerly toward discovering his birth mother, and eventually birth father, and simultaneously discovers a staggering truth from his past.
Lifemark is a film that will make you both laugh and cry. The true story that serves as the inspiration for Lifemark is well known in both the adoption and right-to-life communities, though Lifemark leans most heavily into its pro-adoption message that has long been supported by both Cameron and the Kendrick Brothers and is further affirmed by director Kevin Peeples, a father of eight who created the Elementary Film School to teach elementary kids how to be better storytellers and filmmakers by instilling confidence, humility, communication skills, and using their imaginations to become creators, not consumers.
As an interesting side note, in addtional to Peeples' eight children, Kirk Cameron has six children, Alex Kendrick has six children, Stephen Kendrick has six children, and Shannon Kendrick has seven children.
Okay, back to Lifemark.
While I'm not completely sure that Lifemark warranted a PG-13 rating, that does recognize that the film tells a story with mature themes and a story that has its brief, gritty moments. While it's likely perfectly fine for families watching with their teens, Lifemark is likely not quite as suited for the younger crowd.
Lifemark soars on the strength of its strong ensemble cast. Newcomer Ruggero beautifully captures so many little moments here, and Lifemark has a myriad of little moments, and he infuses David with such humanity that you can't help but root for him from beginning to end. It's a terrific performance for a young actor who is surrounded by some of the faith-based film industry's biggest and most talented names.
I'll also call it that this is Kirk Cameron's best performance in years. I've always felt Cameron is ideally suited for strong ensemble projects, and despite easily being one of the most familiar faces here Cameron has always had a gift for facilitating ensembles and that's exactly what unfolds here. I will admit it took me a little bit to adjust with Cameron as he still looks mighty young, however, subtle efforts to age him to make having an 18-year-old son convincing are effective and Cameron quickly won me over.
I've already raved about Hampton (though I certainly could again) and strong performances are also turned in by Rebecca Rogers Nelson as Susan, whose character arc over the course of the two-hour film is far more dramatic than you initially realize, and the rather remarkable Justin Sterner, whose comic relief here is welcome but never turns into a caricature.
Dawn Long, as the adult Melissa, manages to show Melissa's growth yet also many of those marvelous genetic traits that David acquired. She sublimely compliments Hampton's performance as younger Melissa and gives such a vibrant and loving performance that it becomes clear she not only made the best choice for both herself and her birth son but that she absolutely knows.
Along the way, you'll see familiar faith-based and Kendrick regulars including Alex Kendrick himself. Kendrick is a long under-appreciated actor whom I've enjoyed all the way back to Flywheel. There's an ever so brief scene involving a nurse who cares for Melissa as she holds her birth son shortly after birth before then delivering him to his adoptive parents - the nurse, I've learned is played by the real life Melissa Coles, without uttering a single word adds so much love and presence that I was completely blown away. In addition to the film's strong ensemble, lensing by Bob Scott is absolute perfection and Kyle McCuiston's original music companions the film's story with simplicity and wonder. Terri Middleton's costume design adds richness and humanity and so beautifully captures the life journey of each character from beginning to end.
Opening in theaters for only one week starting 9/9, Lifemark is a must-see for faith-based moviegoers and a heartfelt story of hope, of overcoming the obstacles life throws at us, reveling in the art of faith, grace, and perseverance.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic