2018 / 110 minutes
This is the life story of MercyMe singer Bart Millard, or, more specifically, it's the story of what drove him to write what's been called the most popular Christian song of the modern era, I Can Only Imagine.
The story starts with 12-year-old Bart in 1985, listening to ELO tunes on his Sony Walkman, and crafting a carboard Star Wars fighter helmet. He's a creative dreamer, but his home life is a nightmare. When he gets home that evening his father burns his helmet, and when Bart heads to bed early his Walkman only partially drowns out his parents' screaming.
So is this a story about a man succeeding despite a difficult childhood? It's more than that. The focus isn't as much on Bart's transformation, from troubled kid to successful singer, as it is about God transforming his abusive father. As Bart tells Amy Grant:
"My dad was a monster. I mean that's the only word for it. And I saw God transform him from a man I hated into the man I wanted to become. Into my best friend....I guess I didn't realize God could do that. And so I wrote this song."
That's the central story, and if that was it, it might be too rough of a ride to really enjoy. But added in the mix is the sweet but certainly not simple story of how Bart eventually married his childhood sweetheart. Another great element is the lead actor, J Michael Finley who is a really good actor, and an absolutely fantastic singer!
Millard's father is abusive, both physically, which we mostly don't see, and verbally, which we do. While the violence takes place primarily off-screen there are a few brief moments that are scary because the viewer has no reason to presume they are going to be just brief. One example: Millard's father breaks a plate over his head. It's shocking, however, it doesn't escalate. There's nothing here that would shock an adult, but these early scenes of Millard's family life are one reason this film, despite its PG rating, is not appropriate for children.
Another reason? Not only is Millard's father abusive, his mother abandons him. Neither of those are thoughts we want our children worrying about.
Christian films often take a saccharine turn, but because it is anchored to a real-life story, I Can Only Imagine manages to remain authentic.
This is a remarkable film and I was trying to think of why it struck me just so. I think it was the message its pitching which could be summed up like this. Life on this side of eternity can be hard, especially when we don't understand what God is doing. But we do know He is good and we know He is mighty, so we know miracles are possible including changing even the hardest of hearts. That means sometimes we have to, in confusion, simply cling in trust to Him. But we never have to be without hope.