New Life (Waters, 2016)

New Life is one of those Christian movies that is so earnest and so sweet that one almost feels guilty about being indifferent towards it. Antipathy might at least engender some buzz — and hence some name recognition. Alas it is a tame lion as well as a good one, likely enough to please its target audience even if it never threatens to break free of its genre shackles and be of much interest to anyone else.

The film’s press release mentions both The Notebook and The Fault in Our Stars in its first sentence. Add the word “Christian” and you have both an elevator pitch and a summary.

After a quick prelude of the main character, Benjamin, struggling with depression, we flash back to his childhood where he meets Ava, destined to be the love of his life. It’s difficult to say much about their relationship history without giving away spoilers, even though the intro (and the films to which it invites comparison) telegraph the primary dramatic arc. Life has “mountaintop moments” as well as challenges and incomprehensible ones. That’s a tall order, thematically speaking. Even telling one person’s life is a big topic. Having that life emblematically stand in for the human experience as a whole…very few masterpieces of film or literature even swing for that fence.

newlifeposter1copyI am on record as insisting that writing is the weakest element of most Christian films, and New Life illustrates that point. Jonathan Patrick Moore brings some charm to the prototypical chaste, sensitive, Christian male character. Erin Bethea (Ava), given the thankless task of investing the “girl of his dreams” with an actual personality, almost succeeds. There is some thoughtfulness (though not much imagination) to the direction. There are even a few nice aerial shots that make me wonder if drone photography (if this is indeed what was used) will free Christian film cinematography from being stuck at eye-level. The supporting cast is filled with competent, professional faces one will recognize from television or previous films: Terry O’ Quinn, James Marsters (Spike in a Christian movie!), Barry Corbin. Still, whenever the performers are at their best, one feels like they are weighed down by the weight of the film’s unexceptional writing and plotting.

A typical example might be the opening scene in which a depressed Ben lies in a bathtub, culminating with his taking a breath and sinking below the water. Earlier this year, in response to Henry Gamble’s Birthday, one colleague at a discussion board asked for a moratorium on shots of conflicted characters floating underwater. There’s nothing incompetent or disqualifying about this scene, but it does illustrate how very, very generic is the film’s visual and thematic vocabulary.

Okay, fine, New Life isn’t going to bring a whole lot of new fans to the Christian film genre, but is there not a place within the industry for niche service? For as long as I have been writing about them, Christian films seem to have been criticized for their inability to create cross-over appeal — that is, to retain their Christian distinctiveness while engaging non-Christian viewers and thus growing the audience. In recent years, the Christian film that has seemingly been the most successful (financially if not artistically), God’s (Not) Dead, was both more overt about its Christian content and less interested in courting the non-Christian viewer. That being the case, Christian artists appear (to me) to be trapped between the demands of the market and their own artistic instincts. The resulting art too often feels calculated rather than organic. (Though, to be fair, one could level the exact same complaint about most commercial film; this problem is hardly unique to Christians.)

I suppose the glass-half-full response to films like New Life is that Christian movies are getting better, even if their improvement is achingly incremental. I’d rather watch a generic melodrama of a young couple in love than another altar call that treats the film medium as the spoon full of sugar to help the sermonizing go down.

That said, I’d love even more to have a Christian film that I can admire as well as defend, one that I can argue is accomplished in some sort of absolute sense and not simply in comparison to others of its kind.

New Life opens in select theaters on October 28, 2016. Ticketing information is available at the film’s website.

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