When the folks of Sherwood Baptist Church of Albany, Ga., set out to make the movie “Facing the Giants,” it’s reported they were surprised to see how a film made primarily for their congregation could so capture the hearts and imaginations of America’s ticket-buying audience.

A huge step up in quality from their first film, “Flywheel” (which was actually pretty powerful, if cringe-inducingly amateurish), “Facing the Giants” demonstrated that audiences weren’t automatically turned off by the long-maligned label of “Christian” movie and that a church’s creative team could touch a nation.

Sherwood Pictures stepped up the quality again with “Fireproof,” a movie that both made an impact on many marriages and hit box office numbers that were … frankly … competitive with the big boys.

“Fireproof” is still a “Christian” film, made with a small budget by a team of mostly volunteers, and suffers therefore from stilted dialogue, amateur acting and a heavy-handed religious message. But it proved to be a player on the cinematic worldview battlefield, a remarkable accomplishment for the folks from Albany.

So it is that Sherwood Pictures has produced another film, “Courageous,” that seeks to up the ante again.

Though you won’t hear of it breaking box office records (it came in 5th this week), “Courageous” still turned in a very impressive $7,580 per screen, which would have vaulted it into first place for the week, had TriStar had the sense to distribute it to more theaters.

But commercial success aside, is “Courageous” actually a good movie? Not just “for a Christian film,” but on its own? And what about the message it preaches?

“Courageous” has many things going for it. First off, it is a step up in movie-making quality from “Fireproof.”

The movie has the ability to be very touching at times, particularly surrounding the main character’s daughter, and in many related scenes is as solid and moving as any put out by Hollywood.

Τhe film also surprised me by being frequently and uproariously funny. The “Snake Kings” scene is classic, among the funniest moments of film I’ve seen all year.

But “Courageous” is also still very much a “Christian” film, which felt all the more disappointing in comparison to its other, golden moments. Still visible is the stilted dialogue. Many members of the cast are painfully amateurish. And the spiritual “lessons” come way too heavy, way too fast.

It’s clear this film was made with a moral in mind, a sermon to preach, and the story and the art of moviemaking were sacrificed to pound the lesson home.

Particularly disappointing was the ending of the film: a sermon followed by an altar call. That may play big at Promise Keepers, but it’s a venue mismatch at the local cineplex. I did not leave the theater thinking and internalizing the meaning of the story, for the “message” was all too neatly wrapped up with a bow and fed to me in the final scene. The end result was actually an impact diminished, not cemented.

Clumsy execution aside, however, the message of the film is one that could – and probably should – cross over into the society as a whole, an important lesson that both the church and American culture desperately need to hear: Our children need fathers. Not absentee fathers. Not distracted dads. Not even “average” dads, because we’ve set the bar so low it’s killing our children. Literally.

“Courageous” allows audiences to see through the eyes of police deputies what every study and statistic on the topic out there already shows: Kids without strong, moral men of integrity as their father figures are more apt to turn to crime, take drugs, commit suicide, join gangs and – in one way or another – find ways to die. Abandon your kids, and you abandon them to the wolves.

At the same time, “Courageous” encourages dads that if you will commit to being men of responsibility and courage, with God’s help, it’s not too late to save your children from becoming statistics.

“I don’t want to be a ‘good enough’ father,” one deputy says in the film. “A child desperately needs a daddy.”

The message is clear, undeniable and powerful in “Courageous.” It’s convicting and encouraging. The film is even funny. It’s a really, really good sermon. I just wish it were a better movie, too.

Content advisory:

  • “Courageous” contains no profanity or obscenities.
  • The movie’s only sexuality is discussions of children born out of wedlock and some chaste kissing and affection between married couples.
  • The film’s PG-13 rating, therefore, comes mostly from some tense, violent scenes, child endangerment and drugs seen at the police evidence locker. The violence is never gory, but one scene involves a man clinging to a moving vehicle, others include police chases, a beating and a shootout. It’s the kind of police action you might see every night on broadcast television, but isn’t typically in a “G” rated movie.
  • The film is heavily infused with evangelical Christianity, including several discussions about God, scenes of Bible readings, a pair of sermons, church scenes, characters wearing crosses and praying and a man who shares his faith with another toward conversion to Christianity. The movie makes God a major theme. There is no evident occult content.

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