Overcomer (PG)

Overcomer1

Overcomer, the latest film from Alex Kendrick and his brother Stephen, continues the filmmaking tradition begun with 2006’s Facing the Giants – movies made with evangelical Christian faith as both the heart and goal of the narrative. What Overcomer also continues is the increase in filmmaking skill evidenced by the Kendrick Brothers.

The first act of Overcomer is perhaps the strongest section of any Kendrick Brothers film, reflecting further growth for Kendrick as a visual storyteller. The movie opens with a lovely drone shot of a textbook Middle America high school gym, flying the viewer into the last seconds of a tightly contested basketball game.  Kendrick, playing coach John Harrison, falls in defeat on a missed last second shot. After the game, Harrison encourages his team to learn from the pain of this defeat in order to prepare for next season, one in which their team – Brookshire Christian School – will be bringing all their best players back.

John’s vision of the dream season, however, comes crashing down on the news of a plant closure by the town’s leading employer. One by one, John sees the families of his players depart for greener pastures in towns with better economic prospects. As the Christian school Harrison teaches (and coaches) at feels the pinch of falling enrollment, John is reassigned from his beloved basketball team to coach cross country. Harrison is highly resistant, not considering cross country a legitimate sport. To make matters worse, only one student shows up to tryouts – Hannah Scott, a quiet young lady with asthma.

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Scott (portrayed by Aryn Wright-Thompson) is a young lady with problems of her own. She lives with her single grandmother and the viewer soon finds out she has been kicked out of multiple schools. Furthermore, Hannah is shown to be a habitual yet purposeless thief, lifting personal items from everyone she is around.  Lest we see her as entirely unsympathetic, we also see Hannah looking wistfully at a magazine advertisement of a father giving what must be his young daughter a piggy-back ride while both grin gleefully from the glossy page.

The theme of Overcomer, again continuing the Kendrick Brothers Production tradition, is up front – both in the film’s promotional material and plot: “What Do You Allow To Define You?” Will Harrison survive the damage done to his dreams of basketball success? Will Hannah find a way out of her inner confusion? Subtle storytelling this is not. However, it is also not merely boring schlock. These characters and their conflicts are as real as a neighborhood and fans of character-driven storylines will find it hard not to care about Harrison and Hannah.[1]

The second act introduces the real drama of the story: pressed into Church Visitation duty one evening, Harrison finds himself in the room of a man hospitalized by a diabetes-ravaged body. Thomas Hill, played by Cameron Arnett, is a blind man whose health problems are the result of his former life of dissolution, including an addiction to meth. Having now seen the end of that road and embraced repentant faith in Jesus Christ, Hill becomes a provocative agent in Coach Harrison’s life, first pressing Coach Harrison about his flippant commitment to pray for Hill and later challenging him on the subject of the source of his self-identity. While all of this is quite on the nose, it nonetheless invites the viewer to consider the ways their own sense of self is constructed and what degree of preeminence Christ takes in their own lives.

Eventually, Harrison realizes that Thomas – himself a former elite cross-country runner – is actually Hannah’s father, having abandoned his child to her grandmother’s care early in Hannah’s life. At this point Kendrick introduces a surprising plot development – Harrison and his wife Amy decide to put Hannah in contact with her father without notifying Hannah’s grandmother. This error blows up in the Harrison family’s face once Hannah’s grandmother finds out; Mrs. Scott gives the Harrisons a well-earned dressing down for this choice and the film pauses to ask if the various parties will ever be reconciled.

Here Overcomer ventures into the reach of a criticism anecdotally attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “It is a truly evil story that does not have a truly evil character.” The film is full of problems for the characters, just none that initially seem all that problematic. Harrison struggles with his changing circumstances, but in the most vanilla fashion imaginable – skipping dinner with the family one evening to move a too-long-neglected pile of bricks in the back yard. This leads to what is ostensibly a big argument with his wife but, again, one that feels pretty tame on-screen. The eventual teary-eyed reconciliation actually seems more emotionally powerful than the fight that called it forth. Hannah, even accounting for her kleptomania, appears to be a fairly stable adolescent young lady and her grandmother’s outrage at the Harrisons – powerfully delivered, for sure – is both justified and largely free from anything inappropriate. Even Hill, the one character described as having chosen profoundly dangerous forms of rebellion, shows up in the movie on the right side of a conversion to Christ. Yes, his body is ravaged, but we know from the jump his eternal soul is in good shape.

The reality, however, is that the evil in Overcomer is indeed a subtler kind, but one Christians know is no less fatal than the grander expressions of wickedness commonly found in contemporary drama. Hannah’s breaking of the command not to steal will destroy her eternally if she persists in rebellion. Her grandmother’s choice to hold on to hatred toward Hill, if not repented of, will jeopardize her own soul. Harrison’s self-centeredness is an assault on the glory of Christ. I am suspicious that one of the criticisms that will be shared by Christian and non-Christian viewers of Overcomer is that the dangers presented to the main characters of the film are not all that dangerous. The wise viewer, however, will understand that less extravagant sins are no less provocative to the Holy One of Israel.

The third act resolves in Kendrickian fashion – each party takes to their prayer nook, emerging revitalized and, in Hannah’s case, regenerated. The last element is the most evangelical (in the cultural sense of the word) aspect of the film; Hannah prays a sinner’s prayer, takes a sunny run culminating in a victory pose over a sparkling river, and spontaneously testifies to her faith in front of a wondering theater class. The various conflicts between the various parties finally resolve in Hannah’s end-of-season race. A momentary scare brought on by a severe asthma attack eventually gives way to the joy of Hannah’s triumph, one brought about by a clever strategy from Harrison whereby Hill coaches Hannah via pre-recorded audio. Hill’s eventual death is a sad note but, like Hannah’s asthma attack, is soon absorbed in a vision of Hannah’s adult life which is portrayed as vibrant, healthy, and faith-filled.

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It seems likely that the latest Kendrick Brothers film will strike viewers as unrealistic, considering the ways in which the families and individuals wrestle with problems that seem pale in comparison to the scandalous wickedness we have become accustomed to in a world where dramatic narrative is defined by high-profile series like Breaking Bad or The Wire. Perhaps wise viewers would be well served to consider a point this reviewer heard once from Doug Wilson. Paraphrased, Wilson pointed out that our day sees a story about a junkie dying in a gutter with a needle sticking out of his arm as realistic. Conversely, a story about a father telling his young daughter a sweet story before tucking her into bed is seen as unrealistic. And yet, the second is every bit as grounded in reality as the first. In fact, in terms of pure regularity, the bedtime tuck-in story is more realistic. It is in this latter sense that Overcomer is profoundly realistic. Christian viewers will do well to embrace – dare I say value – this element of Kendrick Brothers films. One aspect of Overcomer that has gone undiscussed thus far is the cinematography. Bob Scott’s work is unfailingly bright, crisp, and clear. These three adjectives serve pretty well as descriptions of Kendrick Brothers films. Wise viewers will make a point to see these elements as strengths rather than weaknesses, even if the films do not always satisfy every aspect of our cinematic appetites.

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[1] One note here on the acting. Kendrick, although growing as an actor, rises only to the level of fine in his performance. This is true for most the cast, excepting Denise Armstrong (playing Hannah’s grandmother), who is quite good in her limited role, and Cameron Arnett, whose character strikes the viewer as more significant than can be explained by the number of his scenes.

Jeff Wright is a husband, father, pastor, educator, and podcaster. He lives in very rural Middle Tennessee and watches a lot of movies. You can hear more from him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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