"BELIEVE" — 1 1/2 stars — Ryan O'Quinn, Shawnee Smith, Danielle Nicolet; PG (some violence, thematic elements and brief mild language); The District
There’s a faith-promoting message deep within “Believe,” but it kind of gets lost in the secular shuffle. Director Billy Dickson’s Christmas movie means well, but a muddled story and some flawed writing keep “Believe” from achieving its goals.
The plot is centered on a rural Virginia auto factory owner named Matthew Peyton (Ryan O’Quinn). Peyton inherited the factory from his grandfather, who also sponsored a popular annual Christmas pageant. But these days, things are tough, the factory is in financial trouble, and that means the pageant is in trouble, too.
The problem is that the pageant has become such a commercial boon to local business that the threat of cancellation puts Peyton in the crosshairs of an increasingly angry local population. The people of Grundy are already suffering the effects of a mine closure and see Peyton as just another selfish executive preoccupied with his own wealth.
So when Peyton tries to persuade his employees to take another pay cut, they go on strike, and when he tells the city council the pageant may not happen, a group of thugs chase him down, beat him within an inch of his life and set fire to his fancy BMW.
Fortunately, Peyton is dragged to safety by CJ (Issac Ryan Brown), a young boy struggling to get by with his unemployed single mother Sharon (Danielle Nicolet). While they nurse him back to health, his various friends and enemies try to figure out where he’s gone.
The essence of “Believe” is Peyton’s quest to embrace enough faith to find deliverance from his myriad problems, and the audience has as much trouble sorting them out as the factory owner does. One thread has a recovering Peyton turning his vacant factory into a temporary homeless shelter, then training his new tenants — which include Sharon and CJ — to work the machines when the city council tries to force him to get rid of them. Another thread connects Peyton’s money problems to an accounting conspiracy designed to pressure him to sell the company and the pageant to a foreign company.
The various threads eventually build to a dramatic conclusion, but much of “Believe” is bogged down in expository speeches and dialogue that tells the audience the message instead of showing it to them. The faith-based message often gets lost in the chaos, and periodic references to the Bible or to Christ never seem to tie into a firm thread.
O’Quinn does what he can with his material, and Nicolet provides a solid anchor to her scenes. CJ is meant to be an energetic, inspiring youngster, but often Brown’s broad performance feels more appropriate for the stage than the screen. Screen veteran Shawnee Smith also provides some support as Peyton's doctor friend, Nancy.
While the production value exceeds the film's low-budget status, the script and story for “Believe” hamper its effort more than anything else. Consider the film’s first 20 minutes, which unnecessarily bounce around from present-day scenes to flashbacks, or a 30-second conversation late in the film that provides a hasty and unrealistic resolution to one of the film’s major subplots.
You have to give credit to Dickson for attempting to put a Christmas film on screen that celebrates the true origin of the holiday, but unfortunately its good intentions alone can’t justify the ticket price.
"Believe" is rated PG for some violence, thematic elements and brief mild language; running time: 121 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.