Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sunday School Musical

I suppose, given the popularity of the High School Musical movies, this movie was inevitable. There's already an audience for that sort of thing, and they don't require a huge production budget. Good thing, too, because this movie was made by Faith Films(2012 Doomsday).

Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, written by Rachel Lee Goldenberg and Ashley Holloway and starring a bunch of unknowns, Sunday School Musical tells the story of two choirs competing for a chance to win a big cash prize so they can save the local church. It's a story you've seen or read a thousand times before, a plot so old it pre-dates the Creation. This film makes the idea of computer-generated scripts only too plausible.

The doomed church in question is Hawthorne, home to a choir of urban hip-hop teens. Their competition in the regional choir-off is the Crossroads Christian Choir, made up of squeaky-clean but woefully untalented high schoolers from the suburbs. When the third group of competitors become disqualified due to a random egg salad incident (don't ask), both Hawthorne and Crossroads find themselves on their way to the upcoming States Championship - with a grand prize of $10,000 (or, ten times this movie's budget).

Zach, the best singer on Hawthorne's choir(and the main character, played by the amiable Chris Chatman), runs into some Issues: his dad is away in the army, his mom just lost her job, and his family has to move across town to live with Aunt Janet. This means that Zach must now attend a new school, and leave the Hawthorne choir behind. The scene where Zach's mom drops this bombshell on him is one of many where bad writing, bad directing and bad acting collide, and inadvertently sets the tone for the film: this is as good as it's going to get.

Zach heads to the rooftops for a musical number with Andrea, the only other Hawthorne Choir member given any characterization. Too bad, because actress Krystle Connor can't act her way out of a torn paper bag. Andrea scolds Zach for abandoning the choir in their time of need, as if it was all his fault. This is her character in a nutshell; no matter what's happening, it's all about her. This trait makes Andrea - and by extension, Hawthorne - very hard to root for. Zach starts at his new school, just in time for a really big coincidence - his new institution of learning is none other than Crossroads, home to the rival choir! They only seem to have two classes at Crossroads - Home Ec and Scripture Studies - both of which introduce Zach to key members of the choir. In Home Ec, Zach gets paired up with Savannah(Candise Lakota) for a baking project. The scene is supposed to highlight their rivalry while suggesting a budding attraction, but the attempts at both tension and humour fall flatter than the pancakes they're making. In Scripture class Zach meets the Nerd. The character's name is Miles(Robert Acinapura), but I'm going to go with his stereotype. Nerd manages to up the tension ante from boring to annoying, then drives it all the way to stupid by accusing Zach of being a spy for the other choir. A spy? Seriously? Well, this is a character who actually uses the words "willy-nilly" with a straight face. He's this movie's Jar Jar Binks, which is quite a feat in a movie full of Ewoks.

Incidentally, the Scripture studies teacher Mrs. Stewart(Debra Lynn Hull) looks like a live action Miss Henn from the tracts of Jack Chick.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, Hawthorne Church's minister informs Andrea and her choir that the church will close unless they can raise $10,000 - the exact amount of the prize for the State's Championship! Andrea wastes no time making the situation all about her. It's understandable; she isn't having much luck in getting the choir into shape without Zach. And her character only has the one note. Savannah recruits a reluctant Zach to the Crossroads Choir, where he teaches them to do their own thang. "Music isn't something you learn, it's something you feel," he tells them, launching into a musical number so rockin' that nobody notices how badly he's lip-synching.

The rest of the film unfolds exactly the way it's expected to. Hawthorne Church is saved, Zach and Savannah kiss, and all is right with the world. What I didn't expect was the complete and utter lack of preaching. This movie does not once mention Hell or the need to get Saved. There is no dramatic conversion scene, and no unconvincing 'UnSaved' stereotypes. The characters do not go around quoting scripture as if it were a second language, either. If not for a couple of scenes involving prayer, one might just forget this is a Christian movie(even though it's about choirs!). Christianity is simply the backdrop all the characters live in. Also conspicuously absent are the much-touted Christian values. When characters act out of selfishness or pride(or just plain act like jerks), nobody holds them accountable. Neither do they learn a valuable lesson that causes them to repent. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to show that Christians are just as fallible and human as everyone else. Perhaps, but I don't credit them with the skill to apply that kind of subtlety.

As a piece of entertainment, Sunday School Musical barely rates a D-. Most of the film's flaws become understandable when you watch the DVD extras; they had only 13 days to shoot, zero rehearsal time, and it was director Lee Goldenberg's first feature film. Given that, it's amazing they accomplished what they did. Cheryl Baxter, the choreographer, is the real hero. Most of the dance numbers are good, and the finale at the State's Competition is amazing. Say what you will about the acting, but these kids can sing and dance like nobody's business.

And the acting really is terrible. Chris Chatman has the entire movie on his shoulders as Zach, and to be fair he's a likable, laid back kind of guy. Whenever the script calls for anything more than that, he and all the others display the emotional range of a baked potato. This is a different sort of Christian movie, with few of my usual objections. It still sucks, but it doesn't suck as much as Apocalypse, Left Behind, or 2012 Doomsday. Faint praise, sure, but praise happily given. Like this movie, it was cheap.

Likely To Convert - 0
Production Values - 2
Acting/Direction - 1
Likely To Be Sat Through - 4
Unintentional Hilarity - 3
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 0

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