Overcomer is the latest movie from the Kendrick Brothers, the creative team behind the faith-based films Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous, and 2015’s surprising box office smash hit War Room, and comes to us courtesy of Provident Films, which is a division of Sony Pictures. This entry into the Kendrick Bothers’ filmography (once again named after a famous Christian pop song just so they could use it over the end credits) was directed by Alex Kendrick, written by him and his brother Stephen, and stars Alex Kendrick (as these often do) as John Harrison, a private Christian school basketball coach who gets some bad news when it is revealed that a nearby plant which employs most of the students’ parents will be shutting down, meaning most of his players will have to transfer schools due to their parents taking jobs outside of town (even though that’s not how school districting works, even for private schools). With his team fading, and not much in the way of hope left, John is thrown for a loop when he’s asked to coach the cross country team, something he doesn’t believe he’s qualified for. The only runner trying out for the team is Hannah Scott, a young girl with asthma who happens to enjoy running, stating in the film that it seems to be “the only thing she’s good at.” With nowhere else to turn for work, and no one else trying out for the team, John decides to go on coaching Hannah, training her to be a cross country runner of the highest caliber…and because it’s a Kendrick Brothers movie, there’s also some Jesus stuff in there.
I’ll admit that as a young kid I used to find the Kendrick Brothers’ films entertaining, and even inspiring. Being raised in a Christian home had prepared me to praise these movies before they even released just for being about Christian things and taking Christian perspectives. But as I got older, and learned more about filmmaking, storytelling, and writing, their films began to leave a sour taste in my mouth. And then, in 2014, came the kicker: God’s Not Dead, a movie from PureFlix about how atheists hate Christians and we need to debate them in front of our classmates to prove, once and for all, that the title to this movie is more than just a Newsboys song (the Newsboys actually ended up cameoing in the movie, by the way; also, the people from Duck Dynasty were there, it was a whole thing). For some reason, every Christian and Christian family I knew at the time were praising this movie like it should have been at the Oscars, but I and every film fan I knew recognized the trash propaganda piece for exactly what it was: propaganda. That was when I finally understood that many Christians (particularly of the Fox News variety – you know who I’m talking about) will bend further over backwards to praise something bad as something good than any Christopher Nolan or even Quentin Tarantino fan would.
The thing about the Kendrick Brothers that somehow both baffles and not-at-all surprises me is the quality of their movies relative to budget; this happens with some other filmmakers in wider-known circles, but at least those filmmakers make their money back for understandable reasons (i.e. the movies rely on spectacle to sell the product, audiences flock because of nostalgia, etc.). The Kendricks’ movies, on the other hand, without relying on spectacle or nostalgia to sell their product, seem to get worse and worse each time as their budgets get larger and larger. Even I can admit, as noticeably low-budget and schmaltzy as it is, Facing the Giants (for all its many flaws) does have a charm to it rooted in the underdog narrative wherein it finds its central premise. Overcomer, by contrast, not only lacks any of the charm or focus that movie managed to barely hold onto, but somehow manages to squelch any of those things that remained even as they dwindled out of the Kendricks’ somehow ongoing filmography.
This actually might be the Kendricks’ worst movie yet, and given where they started from, that is actually saying something. Usually, most of that ire is reserved for something like a lack of character development or the absence of a meaningful story being given its due (which most of the Kendricks’ movies often have), but just from a pure filmmaking perspective, the movie is by far the least interesting-looking of their five released to theaters thus far. The cinematography is bland and uninteresting, the lighting is only used so you can see people, and there is absolutely zero directional vision found within the visuals of a product belonging to a visual medium. The movie just kind of flips from medium shots to reverse shots and back again, with all the randomly inserted establishing shots obviously being shot with a drone, and a distinct lack of close-ups or even medium close-ups to establish a character’s feelings or register surprise with the audience. And yet, that’s not even the most frustrating thing about this movie.
The main problems arise, as they do every time, when the movie decides it wants to preach to the audience rather than actually tell a compelling story and let that be the sermon in itself. About halfway through my screening, I was wondering if we were actually going to go all the way with an at least competent movie that maybe had a few issues with narrative focus when one of the side characters (a blind man in the hospital) asked Alex Kendrick who he was, and the movie stopped cold in its tracks to deliver a sermon on identity, complete with shaming anyone whose first answer to who they are isn’t “I’m a Christian,” even though that’s not how memory recall works. When people complain about certain kinds of media shoving religion down their throats, they’re talking about that. I had a former professor consistently defend the Kendrick Brothers films as something different because they weren’t making movies; they were writing sermons as movies. But if that’s the case, and making a movie is not the point, why are they even making movies at all? To reach a larger audience? That can’t be the case either, because their movies only preach to demographics that would have paid to see them regardless of any prior knowledge or doubt as to the movie’s quality. There’s no effort on the part of the Kendricks to invite anyone outside the Christian circles in, and certainly nothing new is said in this movie that hasn’t already been said in their previous outings that would intrigue anyone curious enough to maybe wander into a theater that’s playing this one day out of sheer boredom. And in case you were thinking that at least they might get the film crowd in to see it because we like movies, the film makes an active effort multiple times to discard the arts as being not worth anyone’s time (least of all high school sports coaches who have serious stuff to do), poking fun at the arts’ expense with a deluge of unfunny jokes that I don’t even think anyone in my theater laughed at.
The very least any audience could ask for is to at least care about the characters in the film, but the Kendricks are so disinterested in their own leading lady that they spend all their time posturing about how much John Harrison is helping Hannah to get better at a sport that he knows nothing about, hasn’t trained for in the slightest bit, and doesn’t continue to try to improve himself in even after its proven that he can’t handle running a 5K. Even these characters, broad and arch as they are, are still constrained to stereotypes so generic you could practically fill a Fox and Friends panel with them (‘cause hey, why write three-dimensional characters when you have a middle-aged, white, Christian dad with a goatee who coaches sports right there?). They’re almost universally uncompelling, and the only times you actually start to care about what’s going on with them, the movie sidesteps to preach at you again…which wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie didn’t have two more compelling stories staring right at it with the factory layoffs or Hannah’s relationship with [redacted]. Most, if not all, of these characters are just bodies to fill a screen, and a few (like Alex Kendrick’s character) are just straight-up unlikable. At one point, John Harrison has a moment where he snaps at his wife while cleaning bricks, and the movie uses this not to say “hey, maybe don’t be a dick to your wife who has some legitimate points to make here,” but rather to imply that it’s the woman’s fault for not being more supportive of her husband when he has to switch sports coaching jobs at a private school since all the other parents got laid off. Oh, and that factory shut-down storyline, by the way? Never comes back up in the movie at all.
It would be one thing, too, if it were just the characters that lacked nuance or gravitas in the film, but the performances are straight up (pardon the pun) god-awful, the only one even bearable to watch being that of the supportive older brother (Jack Sterner), whose total screen-time amount to about…10 minutes of this 2 hour slog. Alex Kendrick does the exact same performance in this movie that he did in the last 3, and at this point, I’d be more surprised to see a halfway decent performance from him than I would a Kendrick Brothers movie without him in it. But, setting aside the fact that the only two black characters who aren’t Hannah are only included to force the sermon-y parts into the movie and then disappear for long stretches of time, Alex Kendrick’s isn’t even the weakest performance in the film; that belongs to Aryn Wright-Thompson, who plays Hannah Scott.
Now look, I like to usually give child actors the benefit of the doubt most of the time, and there have been more and more child actors getting involved in projects that showcase how truly talented they can often be (Jacob Tremblay in Room comes to mind), but as much as I’m sure Wright-Thompson’s performance was definitely hindered by the shallow writing her character is saddled with, I’m also sure that it wouldn’t have been an impressive performance even if Alex Garland (writer/director of Ex Machina and Annihilation) himself had taken the story through about five re-writes. The performance is just bad; every line sounds like the same apathetic regurgitation of the text, and there’s absolutely zero nuance to her performance when she’s on screen with anyone except her grandmother, or a tear-drop prop is used to make it appear as if she knows what she’s doing. I don’t want to hate too much on it, but it was genuinely one of the single worst performances I’ve seen in a movie all year, perhaps the worst. No one expected the Kendrick Brothers to pick out the next DiCaprio, sure, but even War Room had some halfway decent actors in there. In Overcomer, Wright-Thompson appears more bored being in the movie than I’m sure I did watching it drudge past the hour and a half mark where it should have ended.
To be fair, there are a few things I did like about the movie, lest you think I’m solely here to bash a Christian project in some sort of bid to launch myself into the throws of “real film critics” who wouldn’t give this movie their time even if Alex Kendrick told them God would send them to hell for not seeing it. The opening shot (though noticeably created using a drone) is actually quite creative, a nice long shot that travels from the sky through a window and into an ongoing basketball game before focusing in on the team John Harrison coaches. As far as the cinematography goes, that’s the only interesting image the movie conjures, but credit must be given where it’s due, and I’ll admit, I did not see this movie opening with a shot that well-executed. As well, there are a couple of moments that did genuinely move me a bit, most notably the finale of the film and one of the moments after that have to do with an old cross country coach John Harrison meets in the earlier parts of the movie. I won’t spoil what makes them moving as that would be giving away the game, and (even for movies as bad as this) I remain committed to the same spoiler etiquette I’ve always practiced. Finally, as happens with some of these films, there are a couple of jokes (despite what I mentioned earlier) that did make me laugh, largely due to having been a cross country runner when I was a kid and remembering what an arduous torture it was. Kendrick’s exhausted “who would ever want to do this?” was something I felt in my soul, and I hold to that notion all the way into age 24 because running is, well, just the worst.
Maybe Overcomer isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen all year in terms of where my expectations were for it, but by any objective measure (as much as there can be one in a by-nature subjective medium), it’s by far the worst of its kind and perhaps of any kind not exclusively dedicated to going straight-to-home-video upon release. Why the Kendrick Brothers are continuously allowed to get away with this kind of shallow propaganda piece with little to zero care for actual character development beyond “the lead has stronger faith/is a Christian now” or any sort of nuance in the writing or direction of those characters is obvious (actual complexity in the lives of black characters doesn’t really draw the Fox News crowd to theaters), but nonetheless ridiculous, and I can’t wait to never watch one of these things again…at least until the next one comes out, and I need some more material for my Worst of the Year list at the end of that December.
I’m giving “Overcomer” a 3.4/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.