High School Musical goes to Bible camp.
If you think that sounds like the most awesome thing ever, read no further and head over to Netflix. A Week Away is a decently crafted genre piece that youth pastors can pop on at retreats and not have to worry about getting fired over. .
I mostly want to address this review, however, to those who hear that pitch and think it sounds like the worst possible combination imaginable. It’s not. Actually, it’s somewhat winsome, and the genres work together to avoid some of the pitfalls of other Christian films.
It’s been fifteen years since Facing the Giants revived and expanded the notional of a church film or Christian film. What was previously limited to evangelism tools like the Jesus film or preachy, low-budget sermon illustrations has morphed into entertainment vehicles for the already converted. The road has been rocky, with more misses than hits, but economic success has come easier than artistic success, so we aren’t going to have fewer of these movies any time soon.
One of my central laments about the contemporary Christian film is that they often seem fake — the interactions inauthentically canned dialogue that didn’t really reflect how many (most?) Christian live, talk, or think. Worse, the cinematic space the character occupy had little resemblance to the world most Christians occupy. Hence, there was a fantasy element to what was presented as realism. This is what we wish the world was rather than being an authentic portrait of Christians living in the world.
The genius of setting a youth musical in Bible camp is that the setting is already a strange one — it is a bubble by design, and the people who occupy the space in it are aware of that fact. Junior high and high-schoolers are already awkward, so the fumbling nature of their non-God talk or the narrowness of their emotional register seems a bit more normal. That’s not to say youth emotions aren’t real — they are.
The script is a cut above most Christian movies, and it makes several subtle but important decisions. First, it makes the main character an outsider rather than a Christian. Consequently, it is more able to examine the elements of church culture that are strange to the outsider. Second, it mixes pop music with praise music, thus setting up a youth group who are very much in the world and attempting to syncretize their faith with the world rather than simply trying to sanitize the world so it won’t challenge their faith. The mashup of “Awesome God” with a pop melody about being perfect is a prime example of the way it which the film explores the youth experience as opposed to satirizing it or setting it up as normal.
Another good example of context-driven writing is when the male teenager calls the female Christian “perfect.” Rather than engendering a sanctimonious sermonette about how Christians aren’t perfect, his casual remark prompts an emotion we don’t typically see in Christian films: anger. She resents having that label dropped on her, resents the assumptions people make about her life, and, yes, resents the expectations that church culture puts on most young Christians (but especially Christians) to be happy all the time because, hey, your normal teenage depression might not win as many people for Christ….
I haven’t said much about the plot of the film, because, honestly, it doesn’t matter. A trouble teen avoids juvenile detention when he is befriended by a Christian camp and sent to Bible camp instead. He becomes attracted to a Christian girl, and she to him. His foster brother has a crush on another girl. The camp has various activities that allow the kids to compete and occasionally break into song and dance.
I was not raised in the Christian evangelical subculture, but the representation of young Christians in the film is one of the few in contemporary films that strikes me as accurate. It is neither condescending nor cloying. A Week Away is not the sort of movie that will saddle young Christians with the solemn, earth-shaking responsibility of inviting their non-Christian friends to the theater so that they might be saved. It’s a movie they can watch with their already saved friends and have fun. If it prompts them to be a little more introspective about their faith and a little more honest about their feelings, so much the better. It’s not like there is a plethora of films that respect teenagers and their lives to begin with. To have one that respects Christian teens may be a small pleasure, but it is a pleasure nevertheless.