I watched Netflix's Christian musical, A Week Away, so you don't have to
Christian music tends to be "behind the times." Walk into a church and it's likely that they're still singing songs like Awesome God and Open the Eyes of My Heart. Awesome God is older than I am and Open the Eyes of My Heart came out when I was in high school. Yet, these songs are still being sung in many churches today.
In "Silence," Andrew Garfield (left) plays a Catholic priest who is sent to spread the gospel in Japan.
In a similar manner, Christian films can either seem not Christian at all and garner a strong non-Christian audience (e.g., Silence released in 2016) or overly Christian, badly produced, and super cheesy (e.g., Praise Band: The Movie released in 2008). Very rarely do we get a film with a Christian theme that takes life seriously and addresses issues with a genuine approach because in the end, we're all human (e.g., Yes, God, Yes released in 2019).
In "Yes, God, Yes" Natalia Dyer plays a young girl who has a sexual encounter in an AIM chat room which causes her to question her salvation.
Enter in Netflix's A Week Away, released on March 26, 2021. This little film slipped my Netflix recommendations list but while browsing last week I came across it with a 98% match. Curious, I watched the trailer for the film and rolled my eyes at the thought of it. However, in the trailer I was struck by a couple of things - it was a "church camp" that the main character was going to and there were a handful of Christian contemporary music (CCM) artists credited for the writing the music for this film. The artists who caught my attention - For King & Country, Amy Grant, and Michael W. Smith. I also heard Michael W. Smith's super popular song, Place In This World, which, to be honest, made me laugh out loud.
However, being a fan of musicals, and being a Christian (a queer/gay one at that), there was a part of me that wanted to check it out... so I did. Overall, surprisingly, the film is actually not that bad. There were definitely some super cringe moments but the production, cinematography, and the cast made up for it. I actually kind of enjoyed it (for the most part).
The movie poster for A Week Away.
First, let's talk about a couple of the cringe moments: the opening song and the bonfire. Opening songs for musicals are usually anthem pieces that open up the musical with a big bang. This musical does that but the lyrics for the song are... well, not great (thanks Steven Curtis Chapman). Here are some of the lyrics for the song The Great Adventure:
Started out this morning…in the usual way Chasing thoughts inside my head Of all I had to do today
I opened up the Bible And I read about me Said I'd been a prisoner And God's Grace had set me free
And somewhere between the pages It hit me like a lightning bolt I saw a big frontier in front of me And I heard somebody say let's go
Saddle up your horses We've got a trail to blaze Through the wild blue yonder of God's Amazing grace Let's follow our leader into the Glorious unknown This is the life like no other…whoa whoa This is the great adventure
One of the major things about Christian music that sets it apart from other genres is its lyrical content. In this case, we're saddling up horses, trailblazing, and following our leader into the wild blue yonder. This makes Christianity seem very White... which, honestly, American Christianity is very White. This song just reflects that well, I guess.
This song also makes Christianity seem like something that just hits you when you open up a bible and read it. For some people, sure that could work. But for the majority of the people I know, choosing to be a Christian comes from a lived experience of knowing God - whether that comes from the community, people, and family that surrounds a person or from the goodness of a stranger, a Samaritan, who sparks hope within someone. I'm not saying the bible's not important to Christians, it should be. It's a record of how God has moved through God's people in the past. It helps us to recognize the Spirit of God today.
Similar to this Christian lightning bolt reference, Christian films often try and capture worship moments or Holy Spirit moments on camera. While Hillsong might do this well with their performance videos, trying to do this in a major motion picture often leads to a very awkward sort of feeling.
In the bonfire scene, our female lead Avery is moved to speak about the trust she has in God and inserts, out of context, Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV) "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." After this, she leads the group in singing Awesome God (whoop dee doo, here we go). There are a few things to note with this scene:
The bonfire scene from A Week Away.
(1) Christians like to use the Jeremiah 29:11 verse to say that everything's okay because God has a plan. God may have had a plan for the Israelites, that much may be true, but does God have a plan for you specifically? Maybe, who's to say? And what happens if God actually doesn't have a plan for you or what if God's "plan" ends up being not so great?
(2) The switch from being a major motion picture to trying to be a Hillsong Live performance video is a little jarring. I'm not sure what the point of this scene is - are the people watching this film supposed to feel moved? Are we trying to capture a Holy Spirit moment for the characters? For me, in the end, it actually makes the movie feel less genuine.
(3) The movie does something quite interesting here and inserts another song during this moment which is supposed to convey the two lead characters' thoughts and feelings. While they sing "Awesome God" on the outside, on the inside they're singing "God only knows what you've been through, God only knows what they say about you, God only knows how it's killing you, is there a kind of love God only knows." Even if, overall, the scene is a little weird, this part hit me, especially as a worship leader - why isn't the worship song Awesome God truly reflecting how they're feeling on the inside? And why do worship songs not help us convey our stories? Instead, the characters are singing this song on the outside about how awesome God is and on the inside they're hurting and singing another song. Huh, interesting.
Regardless of the lightning bolt reference and bonfire worship scene, our main character Will goes through a lived experience in the film (as opposed to a single moment of giving his life to Christ) which is quite refreshing to see.
Will from A Week Away (top) and Troy from High School Musical (bottom).
Will is our main character, a bad boy turned "Christian" by the end of the film. I use quotes because he never really has a moment where he "accepts Jesus into his heart" or is baptized, which to some Christians is the moment you receive salvation. I think that's ridiculous and to me, Will is a part of the fam. Although Kevin Quinn does an amazing job playing Will in the film, I felt like a handful of his mannerisms are borrowed from Zac Efron's role as Troy from High School Musical. I don't think that's a bad thing, I actually think it's quite endearing to see how much of an impact High School Musical has made on teen musical films. Be proud, Zac. Be proud.
Left to right - George (Jahbril Cook), Avery (Bailee Madison), Will (Kevin Quinn), Sean (Iain Tucker), Presley (Kat Conner Sterling).
Kevin Quinn has done a handful of other work including Bunk'd (Disney Channel) and even voiced a smaller character in Kingdom Hearts 3. Other outstanding cast members include the supporting character, George played by Jahbril Cook (who is this kid and where has he been?) and the female lead Avery played by Bailee Madison. The acting, singing, and dancing from these three are superb.
In addition to the cast, the production and cinematography are well done. From the strolls in the forest to the obligatory beach song, it's all high quality stuff.
Avery showing Will her mom's garden.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about the ending for this film. I don't think the ending is great. For this kind of film, I actually want there to be a kind of dissonance for the main character as he struggles through what it means for God to be a God who isn't "always there." Unfortunately, the film doesn't end this way and we're given a super happy ending instead.
As Christians we tend to speak so much positivity into our own lives that it masks the reality of what it means to be human - to feel negative, sad, or angry feelings along with the good, loving, and happy feelings. Jesus actually became human so that God could experience these things with us and bring our human selves into full reconciliation with God's self. Being a Christian isn't a walk in the park where we can just sing "Awesome God" over our lives to remind us of how faithful and great God is. Sometimes we feel the pain of death and loss. Sometimes people fail us. Sometimes the world fails us. Being a Christian reminds me that there is goodness out there that exists within all of us. The image of God that we all bear longs for connectivity and relationship to the other. Sometimes our desire for self gets in the way of that, but my hope is that self will not win and that God, who is in all of us, will shine instead.
In the end of it all, should you watch this film? Maybe. If you like musicals and are into cheesy sentimental films like me, then go for it. Did I enjoy this film? Yeah, I actually did. Like I've been saying, there were definitely some cringe moments (especially the music, but that's a whole other conversation). At the same time, there were some amazing moments that made me stop and think. Not a lot of films do that nowadays. This film is almost there for me, almost. I'd give it a 7.5/10.