Faith, Hope & Love (Englert and Krantz, 2019)

Faith, Hope & Love unites two of the most formulaic genres in today’s movies: the romantic comedy and the “Christian” film. Given that starting point, the film shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. But even if you go in expecting to cringe and roll your eyes, you end up smiling at and rooting for its endearing characters.

In an unexpected but undeniable way, the weaknesses of both genres are complemented rather than exacerbated by the tropes of the other.

For example, the late Roger Ebert once famously opined that the writing challenge of the romantic comedy was not bringing two people together but keeping them credibly apart for the bulk of the movie. Faith Turley (Peta Murgatroyd) and Jimmy Hope (Robert Krantz) are thrown together by a pro-am dance contest. She’s a dance instructor who has had bad luck with men; he’s a charming widower afraid to let himself love again. If we know in the first five minutes that they are perfect for each other, why should they take so long?

As it turns out, because of religion. Faith is anthropologically curious about Jimmy’s matter-of-fact faith. But that’s not part of what she’s looking for in a guy. Jimmy seems attracted to his vibrant, sexy dance instructor — what single male, Christian or otherwise, wouldn’t be? But all his relationships are tinged with grief, and he admittedly is not ready to move on from the memory of his loving, Christian marriage.

One of the ways the religious angle elevates the worst parts of the romantic comedy angle is it allows the characters to be at least marginally self-aware people who have understandable but surmountable reservations about the relationship. Hope is attracted to the promise of rest offered in the gospel, but she is also aware of being let down by men in the past and has a hard time trusting God because she has a hard time trusting anyone. Yes, the exposition of these themes is rote, usually delivered through dialogue, and the plotting is generic — Jimmy takes Hope on a fake date to try to engender jealousy in an indifferent boyfriend. But the film is refreshingly uninterested in keeping the characters oblivious to their own budding attraction. Things don’t turn on a sudden epiphany of what (or who) they have been blind to so much as on a gradual coming to terms with what is holding them back. This feels a lot more like how relationships work in the so-called “real world.”

In the same vein, the treatment of the romance helps smooth over some of the problems with Christian genre films. A part of Jimmy’s and Hope’s attraction is sexual in nature, and that part is accentuated by the sensuality of their dances, particularly the Tango. Yes, the film uses dancing as a shorthand symbol for letting go of relational control (who leads), but there is something decidedly non-metaphorical about two actual bodies entwined together or in Faith’s wowzer of a ballroom dress. It doesn’t hurt that Krantz and Murgatroyd have genuine chemistry together and that her dance training provides Faith with a more confident physical presence than we are used to seeing in Christian movies. Not that Faith or the film is slutty or sexually aggressive. But the film is more interested in the ways these two characters channel their attractions than in asking them to deny them, more astute than most Christian films about the ways “attraction,” while not being an adequate foundation for a healthy relationship, can be and often is a catalyst for one.

When Faith, Hope & Love moves away from the prospective lovers, usually to Jimmy’s work, it loses steam and tries too hard to be zany without really having any bite. (Corbin Bernsen does deliver the film’s one audible laugh as Jimmy’s boss when he equates dancing with playing “dress up” as one of those things all Christians do in the privacy of their bedroom but don’t ever talk about publicly.) But if the co-workers are two-dimensional sitcom props, Jimmy’s daughters are a bit more realistic than we are used to from the genre. The older of the two wears make-up and lobbies for a 1:00 a.m. curfew, but she is also responsible enough to come home early when people at a party start doing “stupid stuff.” Her dad, rather than interrogating her about it, trusts the values that he and his deceased wife have instilled in her and that she routinely but imperfectly reflects back. This too looks and feels like how Christian relationships are in the “real world” as opposed to the overly sentimentalized or sanitized Christian-movie world.

Ultimately this is Krantz’s and Murgatroyd’s film, and they do what all actors in memorable romances do — they make you care about their characters and root for their happiness. That their happiness involves a spiritual as well as carnal union will be a bonus for Christian viewers but may not even be a deal breaker for those who don’t share Jimmy’s faith. The film presents religion not so much as the thing that will make all relationships work but as the thing that makes this relationship work. In that sense, it’s a testimonial rather than a sermon, and a rather sweet one at that.

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