Plot: Bart (J. Michael Finley) always had an interest in music, as he connected deeply with the songs he listened to on his Walkman. In truth, he took refuge in the music to hide from his real life problems and an Amy Grant tape proved to be just the salve he needed to make it through. At home, he faced a volatile father in Arthur (Dennis Quaid) and once his mother left, it was just the two of them and instead of getting closer, things became even more tense. In high school, Bart played football to try to win his dad’s love, but that ended when a brutal injury sank his career on the field. In need of a new elective class, Bart joined glee club out of lack of options and while he resisted at first, he soon found he had a voice for music. But instead of being proud of his son, Arthur railed on Bart and told him to forget about singing, focus on the real world instead. Bart was driven to be involved with music however, but could he find his place in a business that is almost impossible to succeed in?
Entertainment Value: This one is based on the real life events that inspired the song I Can Only Imagine and while a movie about a song seems thin, the story behind the song is more than enough narrative for a feature film. The movie is rooted in Bart’s faith, so there is a strong Christian theme, but there are also universal elements that could appeal to a wider audience. The core of the movie is Bart’s relationship with his father, which is a dark, but hopeful narrative and it is well handled here. I appreciated that the movie shows the flaws of Bart as well, in specific the post-concert scene with the music execs and the initial reunion with Arthur. These scenes show that even those with faith aren’t without flaws, which sets up the redemption elements well. Of course, the faith driven aspects are heavy handed here, but unlike combative films like God’s Not Dead, the vibe here is one of hope and forgiveness. Even so, the religious elements are central to the movie and I know some have no interest in that. The movie overall is predictable and has similar traits to other underdog/redemption narratives, but I Can Only Imagine still works well, especially for those interested in the faith aspects.
The cast here is mostly middle of the road, so the performances are adequate, but not all that memorable. J. Michael Finley has the lead and looks a lot like Patton Oswalt, which adds some humor if you think of Oswalt in this kind of role. Finley is about as basic as it gets, with little presence to speak of, but the role makes minimal demands. He seems to trudge through, but doesn’t make the most of the little comic moments and misses the depth of the emotional beats. This sounds like a harsh appraisal, but as the script is also rather basic, his performance is fine. Dennis Quaid seems to be the lone performer who showed up to leave an impression, with an over the top, but effective turn as Bart’s abusive father. His effort is likely the part of I Can Only Imagine that most viewers will remember, as it is a powerful turn. The rest of the cast is passable, with a decent effort from Madeline Carroll, while Trace Adkins just plays himself, even though he isn’t playing himself. This one is of most interest to fans of faith based cinema, but anyone who appreciates an inspirational underdog narrative or a redemption arc should find this watchable.