If you listen to Christian radio, the name Jeremy Camp and his music should be familiar.
“I Still Believe” is one of Camp’s most popular songs, sung in mega-churches across the nation. It is also the title of the film about his rise to fame and how his faith was tested.
New Zealand actor K.J. Apa (“The Hate You Give” and “Riverdale”) plays the lead role, dubbed with Camp’s iconic scruffy voice for the singing. “I Still Believe” takes an inspirational true story and gives it the Nicholas Sparks treatment — a straightforward story that checks off all the standard clichés (love triangle, cheesy dialogue and coastal setting).
It’s essentially another “Fault in Our Stars” story, only this time told through the religious filter. “What if God wants us to be together,” Camp asks after having known Britt Robertson’s character for only a few days.
The story begins in Layfette, Indiana, in 1999, where an eager Camp is departing his farm-town home and wholesome parents (Gary Sinise and Shania Twain) for Calvary Chapel Bible College in California.
His first day at the school is explosive, meeting one of his music idols, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons), and attending a welcome concert where he forces an awkward introduction to the girl of his dreams. Melissa Henning (Robertson) is charmed by Camp’s forwardness, his devotion to God and to music.
Unfortunately, she is caught between Camp and trying not to hurt Jean Luc, who also likes her. After a few secret dates, their relationship hits a stumbling block when Melissa is diagnosed with cancer and subject to multiple operations and treatments. Both pray for signs if they should proceed with their relationship — and for a miracle.
“God is so infinitely vast,” Melissa says, “and this is his painting,” showing Camp a projection of the universe. The stars become a metaphor throughout the story that isn’t as much about miracles (although, apparently you can’t have a faith-based film without one) as it is about sustaining your beliefs even when they fail you.
The script contains poorly written dialogue and uninspired direction from Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin (“I Can Only Imagine”). People of faith will find reassuring comfort from its message, whereas cynics will be put off by its predictable sentimentality. In one scene, the doctor (Cameron Arnett) stresses to Melissa that cancer has spread to her ovaries; with her life in danger, her only concern is not being able to have children.
“I Still Believe” walks the blurred line of a romance and biography, bringing Camp’s musical inspiration to others. His “Melissa Story” has touched thousands and inspired nearly all of his early songs.
This isn’t the first time Apa and Robertson have played love interests, and “I Still Believe” is a mirrored version of Robertson’s character from “The Longest Ride.”
You won’t find any standout performances here; in fact, Apa appears to have read the Zac Efron playbook when it comes to haircuts, singing faces and mannerisms. The film’s obvious attempt to erase any sex appeal has all the women in oversized plaid shirts in nearly every scene. “I Still Believe” is preaching to the choir with its narrow appeal.
Final Thought: Runs the playbook on clichés for the Nicholas Sparks romance genre era and inspirational films.