Before the Giants…

Before the surprising success of Facing the Giants, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, produced their first feature film, Flywheel.  With a budget of only $20,000, these relatively new filmmakers cast community and church members to tell a morally uplifting story about the power of prayer and the necessity of placing God first in your life.

Flywheel tells the story of Jay Austin (Alex Kendrick), a crooked used car salesman who sells his cars at a ridiculous mark up.  His cheating business practices know few boundaries, as he even scams his own minister.  Jay’s corrupt business practices pollute his home life:  he is rude and dismissive to his wife and basically ignores his son.  All of this, of course, is just a symptom of his greater, spiritual illness.  He does not place God first in his life, he does not pray or go to church regularly, and when he does attend church, he places an empty envelope in the offering plate.

All of this comes to a head when Jay overhears his son tell a friend that he does not want to be like his dad and that, basically, he is ashamed of him.  To top it off, though he sells cars at a great profit, he is behind on his rent for the lot and on repaying a bank loan.  After watching a television sermon, Jay feels convicted, breaks down, prays for God’s guidance and forgiveness, and turns his business over to God, his “new boss.”  Along with Jay’s commitment to good business practices and willingness to return all the money to the customers he cheated before, a series of “miraculous” events saves Jay’s business.

It is difficult to judge this film alongside Hollywood products or even films that come from the specifically mainstream Christian film industry.  Again, the producers only had a $20,000 budget and, as I suspected, only one camera.  In the introduction to the film, writer, director, and lead actor Alex Kendrick said that they were all surprised that they even finished Flywheel.  Intended for their local theaters and rental stores only, the Kendrick brothers claim that it was a blessing from God that Flywheel found wider distribution in Blockbuster stores across the country and television broadcasts on a variety of networks.  So in a sense, we must see that this was a specific product marketed to a specific audience with a specific intention.  However, through changing marketing and distribution practices, Flywheel found a much larger audience, and thus, is open to the criticisms of that audience.  Like other films, we must assess it critically as do the filmmakers.  However, this is a rather fruitless engagement given the drastic increase in production values and filmmaking techniques in their subsequent film, Facing the Giants, and the filmmakers’ own admission of naive rookie mistakes.

On the other hand, I do believe it is necessary to critically engage the theology present in the film.  The worlds of both Flywheel and Facing the Giants almost seem to be parallel universes.  In these worlds, God is to be credited for every good thing, even if it is a human endeavor.  In this world, prayer is the answer to every problem.  These problems are a result of not placing God first in life or, in other words, stem from a basic lack of faith.  The problem with these films’ limited worldview is that they do not present alternatives, even religious ones.

Without a doubt, Sherwood Baptist Church, scenes of which the filmmakers include in Flywheel, must contain numerous members of great faith and trust in God who face seemingly insurmountable problems or injustices, through no fault of their own.  A person stricken with cancer or who loses their job because a business moves overseas has little if anything to do with that person’s lack of faith.  In fact, to claim that correlation is an equally grave injustice that signifies a theology that is short-sighted at best and corrupt at worst.  The over-emphasis on God’s involvement in every good even that takes place in the film downplays the very real role that we can and should play in working to bring about the Kingdom of God.

I recognize that I am not the intended audience for Flywheel, theologically speaking, although I might be from an evangelistic standpoint.  I recognize what a great source of inspiration that this film has been and will be in particular communities of faith.  I also recognize that it might help bring people into those communities.  However, as it and other Sherwood Pictures productions, make their way into wider audiences, they will and must be met with theological critique and dialogue.  With the recent release of their latest film, Fireproof (check back soon for review), the Kendrick brothers might just be the future of religious filmmaking.

Flywheel (120 mins.) is available on DVD and is not rated, but don’t worry, it’s not one of those scandalous NR’s.