"God's Not Dead 2" — 1½ stars — Melissa Joan Hart, Jesse Metcalfe, David A.R. White, Ray Wise; PG (some thematic elements)
The increasing number of recent faith-based films can be divided into some key categories. Many are set in biblical times and either re-create ancient events or offer peripheral perspectives on them, such as this year’s “Risen.” A second category is set in contemporary times and focuses on faith-promoting true stories, such as “Heaven is For Real” or 2015’s “Cokeville Miracle.”
Like its 2014 predecessor, director Harold Cronk’s “God’s Not Dead 2” falls in a third category, which is much more confrontational and political. These stories are also set in contemporary times but try to address the role of faith and religion in an increasingly secular society and often do so with a doomsday voice of warning.
“God’s Not Dead 2” builds around a hypothetical story that is meant to reflect the controversy over the role of religion — specifically Christianity — in the public classroom. The focus of the story is Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), a high school history teacher.
During a discussion on nonviolent protest, touching on historical figures such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., a student named Brooke (Hayley Orrantia) asks if Jesus Christ might also fall in the same company. Miss Wesley’s confirming answer, which references New Testament scripture, sparks a controversy that eventually lands her in court, fighting to keep her job.
“God’s Not Dead 2” is essentially a courtroom drama, pitting Miss Wesley and her rookie lawyer Tom (Jesse Metcalfe) against the school board and a devious group of attorneys led by Peter Kane (Ray Wise) in a battle to determine whether Christianity can even be discussed in a public classroom.
This main plot is fleshed out by the story of a local pastor on the jury, the Rev. Dave (David A.R. White, who also starred in the first film), who is trying to help a young man (Paul Kwo) understand God in spite of family resistance. Dave and his fellow pastors are also being required to submit their recent sermons for independent review.
Elsewhere, Brooke, who was inspired to investigate religion after the death of her younger brother, is being pressured to remain quiet about her role in Miss Wesley’s trial. This doesn’t sit well with a relative named Amy (Trisha LaFache), who is reconciling her own faith after her cancer goes into remission.
It’s a messy plot that takes on more than it can handle, but the trouble with “God’s Not Dead 2” isn’t that it’s a poor film. The problem is that it handles a valid subject in such a ham-fisted way. The exercise of religious liberties in contemporary society is an important and relevant issue, as is evidenced by the numerous states (including Utah) that have worked to establish legislation in recent years.
But “God’s Not Dead 2” probably won’t do much more than preach to the choir, and even the choir might find itself cringing at the film’s heavy-handed execution. Courtroom dramas are notorious for long-winded speeches and preachy content, but “God’s Not Dead 2” has an especially nasty habit of using lengthy speeches for tedious exposition. It often feels like you’re watching someone read an op-ed piece to you on screen.
The worst culprit, though, might be the two-dimensional, melodramatic portrayal of the various anti-faith characters in the film. As the school principal, actress Robin Givens does little more than offer smug looks of calculation at the camera, and Wise's villainous attorney Kane couldn’t be more sinister if he were given a black hat and a curly mustache. During an early meeting with Brooke’s parents, who are the formal plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Kane sneers, “We’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead.”
The effect of all these tactics is to undermine the intent of the film’s more legitimate message, masking its valid points with cinematic stumbles.
"God's Not Dead 2" is rated PG for some thematic elements; running time: 121 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.