Bart Millard is a young boy with big dreams. Perhaps this 1980s kid will be a space pilot. Or a Jedi knight. Or a sports star.
Sadly, though, Bart’s father — always angry and often abusive — doesn’t share his son’s joy for life.
“Dreams don’t pay the bills,” the dad tells him. “Nothing good comes from it.”
To underscore the point, Bart’s father burns his son’s space helmet – the homemade one he made out of cardboard – in an outdoor barrel.
Such hate-filled antics are not uncommon. During the day, Bart endures his father’s verbal and physical abuse. At night, Bart lies in his bed and listens to music, hoping that his unstable father – and his belt — simply stay away.
Bart is living a nightmare, and it doesn’t improve during his high school years, either. When Bart’s father breaks a kitchen plate over his teenage son’s head, Bart realizes he’s had enough. He leaves home with dreams of being a singer – and with the hope that he’ll never see his father again.
The film I Can Only Imagine (PG) opens this weekend, detailing how MercyMe’s Bart Millard became inspired to write the 2001 song In Can Only Imagine, which remains one of the most popular tunes in the history of contemporary Christian music.
It stars newcomer J. Michael Finley as Millard, Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid (The Rookie, Soul Surfer) as Millard’s father, Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein) as his grandmother, and country music artist Trace Adkins as Millard’s manager.
The movie follows the unlikely rise of MercyMe but also gives us an Apostle Paul-like conversation story in the process. As Millard’s character says at the beginning of the film about his father, “If Christ can change that dude, he can change anyone.” In the final years of his life, Millard’s dad – the same “monster” who whipped Bart so bad that he once had to sleep on his stomach – found the Lord.
Here are five things parents should know:
1. It’s the best Erwin film yet. I Can Only Imagine is the fourth film from directors Jon and Andrew Erwin, who also made Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out and October Baby. In my view, it’s their best movie yet. The screenplay is gripping, the soundtrack is perfect, and the performances by Quaid and Finley had me squirming, laughing and crying. It’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen – so much so that I gave it five out of five stars.
2. It’s family-friendly, with a small caveat. That is, I would think twice before taking small children to it. The handful of scenes involving Bart and his abusive father are intense and uncomfortable, even if they’re necessary for the story. We see a young and scared Bart lying in bed, listening to his father scream at his mom. As a young boy, Bart takes a swing at his father; his father grabs him, pushes him to the floor and considers punching him — but doesn’t. Later, when Bart is a teenager, the father breaks a plate over his head. After Bart leaves home and returns, we hear him describe one of his beatings to his father.
3 It has no sexuality or language. But you already knew that. It’s an Erwin Brothers film. We see a young girl kiss a young Bart on the cheek, but that’s it.
4. It has tons of spiritual lessons. I Can Only Imagine gives us lessons on regret, forgiveness, redemption, hope and the power of the gospel. Speaking of the gospel …
5. It’s all about the gospel. Viewed from a worldly perspective, it’s easy to scoff at the central message of I Can Only Imagine and proclaim: “Any man who beats his family doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” And that’s true. Bart’s dad didn’t deserve forgiveness. But neither did Paul after he jailed Christians and watched them murdered. Or Peter after He denied Christ. Or David after he committed adultery and had a man killed. None of us deserve forgiveness. None of us are righteous before a Holy God (Romans 3:10-12).
But the gospel message is powerful because of is power. It’s not limited to the “little” sins. It covers the “big” ones, too.
The Good News is for the whole world – even for the worst among of us. Even for an abusive father who finds redemption in his final moments of life.
I Can Only Imagine is rated PG for thematic elements including some violence.
Entertainment rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4 out of 5 stars.