2023, PG-13, 120 min. Directed by Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle. Starring Joel Courtney, Jonathan Roumie, Kelsey Grammer, Anna Grace Barlow, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Ally Ioannides, Julia Campbell, DeVon Franklin, Nic Bishop.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Feb. 24, 2023
The hippie messiah preaching the gospel to flower children caught up in the zeitgeist of sex, drugs, and rock & roll in Jesus Revolution resembles the Western world’s visual conception of Christianity’s most emblematic figure: shoulder-length hair; scraggly full beard; loose-fitting clothes; serene countenance with beatific smile; and the Caucasian (albeit tanned) skin of someone born anywhere but Bethlehem. The emulation is hardly coincidental, for nothing in this evangelical film about a short-lived religious movement taking root in late Sixties Southern California (remember the disparaging epithet “Jesus freak”?) is open to chance, much less to any interpretation other than an unequivocal One.
As street minister Lonnie Frisbee, Jonathan Roumie is the best thing about Jesus Revolution – faint praise to be sure. (The actor has had a lot of experience walking in sandals, having portrayed Jesus of Nazareth in the long-running Christian television series The Chosen.) Roumie brings a credible openheartedness to the role, conveniently skirting the frequently toxic influence that cult leaders, both good and bad, can have on their disciples. But as the ecstatic, upward-looking expressions of Frisbee’s growing congregation come to dominate the movie, like something out of a throwback Cinemascope religious epic, it turns into proselytizing rhetoric.
One of those won over by the young charismatic evangelist is Pastor Chuck Smith (Grammer), the much older and more orthodox founder of Calvary Chapel, who starts out on the opposite end of the generation gap from Frisbee and his group of followers. One minute, he’s dismissing the idealism of the youth movement, grumbling about how the hippies protesting the Vietnam War on the evening newscast need to bathe. The next, he’s kneeling before them and washing their bare feet after opening the doors of his ministry in a conciliatory gesture. The pastor’s relatively short-spanned conversion requires the actor to appear rapt at times, not a good look on Grammer.
But there’s something to be said for how Jesus Revolution occasionally evinces a period, albeit not in a very sophisticated manner, when a seemingly unbridgeable societal fissure divided the young and the old people in this country. It fares less believably when amateurishly evoking the period’s cultural markers (name-dropping Warhol here, a Timothy Leary impersonation there, chronologically inaccurate needle drops everywhere), while a scene of drugged-up college kids in a VW van careening down the highway is shot like one of those high school “educational” films in which teens must pay the price for getting high. Clearly, the quality of these details is expendable compared to the more pressing focus of Jesus Revolution: preaching to the choir.