Starring: Masey McLain, Ben Davies, Cameron McKendry, Victoria Staley, David Errigo Jr., Cory Chapman
Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material, Teen Drinking and Smoking, Disturbing Violent Content and Some Suggestive Situations
When I first heard that they were making this movie, I was appalled. Who could have the gall to turn one of this nation's darkest moments into a Christian film? Thoughts of the Columbine massacre getting the "God's Not Dead" treatment floated through my head. I saw this movie to see if it was as bad as I thought it would be. Perhaps even hoping, to get back at that wretched movie and its slightly less awful sequel. So I ventured into the theater primed for a train wreck and expecting to be offended and preached to. Fortunately, that was not the case.
"I'm Not Ashamed" is actually a very good film, at times even great. The acting is strong, the writing is realistic and the filmmakers are unafraid of venturing into dark material. One of the things that tanked the "God's Not Dead" movies is that they compartmentalized everything. Christians are good people who are put upon and discriminated against by the evil secular society and everyone else hates Christianity to the point of foaming at the mouth. That's not what happens in "I'm Not Ashamed." Based on the evidence, Rachel Scott would have found such a treatment insulting.
Rachel Scott (McLain) is your average teenager. She's a little gawky, shy around guys she likes, and is into drama. One guy she likes is Alex Dickerson (McKendry), who writes the plays for the drama class. Her friend Madison (Staley) knows him and offers her an in. They hit it off, but because she snuck out at night to be with her friends, her mother sends her to spend her summer in Louisiana. There, she finds a stronger relationship with Jesus, but that doesn't really solve anything for her. At her youth group, she finds a young man stealing pizza. Curious, she follows him and learns that he is homeless. She all but orders him back and they become fast friends. In fact, Nate (Davies), as he is named, eventually considers her to be a kid sister. Of course, we all know that Rachel's life was cut short on April 20, 1999, when she was murdered by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
One thing that the film does right is that it doesn't turn Rachel into a mouthpiece for Christianity or worse, some sort of martyr. In telling her story, the filmmakers have kept the focus on her personality rather than her beliefs. To her, her faith was personal and rather private. She would talk about it if asked, but she wasn't one to try to covert people to her faith (she said as much). Rather, they explore who she was: an energetic girl with a sense of humor, a strong faith and a non-judgmental attitude. She's also not a perfect individual. She feels jealousy, she falls for the wrong guy, and at one point nearly commits suicide. But she does the best she can and when she falls by the wayside, she rights herself.
Clearly, much of the film's success lies with the sparkling performance of Masey McLain. Present in virtually every scene, the film essentially rests on her shoulders. It's a fantastic performance that if anyone outside its target audience sees it, will lead to more work and exposure. All facets of Rachel are explored, requiring McLain to express a wide range of emotions (after all, she is playing a teenager). The young actress doesn't miss a beat or hit a single false note. More importantly, she creates a warm presence that makes her instantly sympathetic. She has the same quality that Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts have. Her co-stars are merely inhabiting her orbit, but they're solid if unspectacular.
One misstep the film makes is with the scenes involving Harris and Klebold. Obviously for the film to generate much dramatic tension, the audience must be occasionally reminded of the impending tragedy. But the scenes are awkwardly handled. The writing is stiff and so is the acting. And while I don't have any problems with a film trying to explain their motivations, it feels shortchanged here. Either more time should have been spent with it or it should have been excised. The scenes in which Rachel unwittingly foretells her own death feel forced and artificial. She occasionally says that she can't see her future, and while that may have been the case, these scenes fall flat. The end titles which state the impact of Rachel's life are also a thorn in the film's side. They're not necessary and feel exploitative.
A filmgoer might be wary of watching a film about the Columbine massacre. It makes sense; after all, who would voluntarily want to revisit that horrible day? But the way the film is made makes it less about the slaughter of 13 people than an exploration of one unique and lovable individual. Rachel is special because of who she is, not how many Bible verses she knows. Her faith is expressed in lending an ear to the new kid, asking out a lonely student with a birth defect, and forgiving her friend that betrayed her in the worst possible way. That the film remembers this is what makes the film work, and it's Masey McLain that takes it to the next level. If we could be half the person Rachel was, then we'd be in good shape.