Reviewing a film like “I Can Only Imagine” isn’t really a fair thing to do. It is a film designed to appeal to such a specific subset of the audience that, unless you are a part of that subset, it’s hard for you to properly assess the film on its intended merits. Directed competently by Andrew and Jon Erwin (“Mom’s Night Out”), “I Can Only Imagine” tells the story of the events that inspired the song of the same name, which is apparently among the most beloved of all modern Christian folk songs. The film stars newcomer J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard, whose contentious relationship with his father inspired the song. The father in question is Dennis Quaid (“A Dog’s Purpose”), who gives the picture an air of legitimacy it might otherwise lack.
The story follows a fairly basic biopic drama formula, beginning with Bart in childhood and following him into adulthood. The complicated relationship between Bart and his father Arthur, while interesting enough, feels as though it isn’t as well developed as it might have been were the script free to go deeper into the psychological issues at the root of it. This problem extends beyond just this storyline; in fact, much of the movie feels constrained by its religious overtones. What actually leads someone to become a Christian pop star and what that does to a person’s worldview isn’t particularly well examined because it feels as though the movie is mostly preaching to the choir. No attempts are made to say anything that Bart Millard himself might not say about his own life, and any deeper meaning in the movie is hard to come by.
That being said, for what it is, it’s not bad. “I Can Only Imagine” is more than marginally entertaining for those who don’t know who Bart Millard is, and it’s easy to imagine it being a great night at the movies for those people out there who can belt every note of Millard’s songs. Quaid gives his usual performance, elevating what otherwise would’ve been a one-note character to someone who seems to have multiple layers — even if these layers are never shown explicitly on screen. Sadly the same cannot be said for fresh-faced Finley, who portrays Millard with all the depth of a children’s cartoon character. Some of it can be blamed on the direction, which is uninspired but expected in a paint-by-number picture such as this. Regardless, a crucial aspect of any biopic is the performance of the lead and in this case, that performance simply falls flat.
“I Can Only Imagine” is designed to be appealing to people who have fond memories and a love of Millard and his band’s famous song. But for everyone else, the film will probably just be a bore. The Erwin brothers seem to thrive off of these kinds of Christian feel-good family films, but for general audiences, films of this sort are just no longer relevant.