I Can Only Imagine Review

Overall Rating

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Strongly centered in a biblical worldview


Ranking Categories:
Overall Faith and/or Biblical Relevance 4.5stars.png
Faith-compatible Depiction of Characters and Character Relationships 4.5stars.png
Faith-compatible Depiction of Situations 4.5stars.png
Family Viewing Suitability 4.0stars.png
Entertainment Value 4.5stars.png
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Summary

In one of the most inspiring and emotionally powerful faith-driven films of the year, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE tells the story behind MercyMe’s chart-topping hit, “I Can Only Imagine”—the most-played contemporary Christian song of all time. And although this beloved song took only ten minutes for songwriter and lead vocalist Bart Millard to write, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE reveals the years of abuse and pain in Millard’s relationship with his father that sets the stage for the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel to bring healing and forgiveness in their lives.    

Distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions and produced by Kevin Downes Productions and Mission Pictures International, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE is directed by the Erwin Brothers–Andrew and Jon (WOODLAWN, MOM’S NIGHT OUT)—and written by Alex Cramer, Jon Erwin and Brent  McCorkle (WOODLAWN). The outstanding cast features Broadway actor and film newcomer J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard, the lead singer of MercyMe; Dennis Quaid (A DOG’S PURPOSE, FOOTLOOSE, SOUL SURFER) as Bart’s father, Arthur; country music star Trace Atkins (MOM’S NIGHT OUT, DEEPWATER HORIZON) as MercyMe manager Scott Brickell; Priscilla Shirer (WAR ROOM) as music teacher Mrs. Fincher; Cloris Leachman (“Mary Tyler Moore,” “Phyllis,” “Malcolm in the Middle”) as Memaw, Bart’s grandmother; Madeline Carroll (GOD BLESS THE BROKEN ROAD) as Shannon, Bart’s childhood friend, high school sweetheart and future wife; and Nicole DuPort as Amy Grant.


Overall Faith and/or Biblical Relevance

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With strong themes of redemption, healing and forgiveness, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE shows that God’s compassion and grace can move powerfully in the darkest places of pain and abandonment to bring about life-changing transformation and freedom to those trapped in relational sin and brokenness. And by shining a light on the impact of a deep father wound on a young boy’s life, this film offers hope and encouragement to those who have experienced domestic violence with the message that if God can change the heart of a monster like Arthur Millard, He can change anybody.


Faith-compatible Depiction of Characters and Character Relationships

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The central relationship depicted in I CAN ONLY IMAGINE is that between Bart Millard and his father, Arthur. A stubborn and angry man—frustrated over his life of unfulfilled dreams—Arthur is often abusive and physically violent toward his wife and son. Despite this, Bart is overall surprisingly respectful of his father and generally seems to honor him—particularly in his younger years. However, when Bart shows strong interest in music—and begrudging interest in following in his father’s footsteps as a football star—Arthur belittles Bart and tells him that chasing his dreams as a musician is a waste of time and that he should pursue a trade so that he can make a living before life passes him by. As the tension escalates in their relationship, Arthur breaks a plate over Bart’s head, prompting Bart to leave and cut ties with his father.   

For Bart’s mother, the decision to leave comes much earlier. Although she loves her son, she effectively abandons him at church camp one summer in order to get away from Arthur—devastating young Bart and causing him to wonder what he did wrong to make her leave. On a positive note, it is at this camp that Bart makes several new friends, including Shannon—the girl that would become his high school sweetheart and later his wife.  And as a consistent and godly influence on Bart’s life, Shannon prays for him through the ups and downs of their relationship, including during a painful period when Bart breaks up with her to pursue his music career with MercyMe.


Faith-compatible Depiction of Situations

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Overall, situations depicted in I CAN ONLY IMAGINE are very faith-compatible.  As a youth, Bart is interested in going to church, but his father isn’t into it. And at church camp, young Shannon has a crush on Bart and writes about him in her journal. Together, they sneak out at night to look at the stars and she innocently kisses him on the cheek. She also introduces him to Christian music by giving him a tape of Amy Grant.   

At school, Bart tries to please his dad by playing football. And while he becomes a fairly decent player, he breaks his leg at practice, which is a huge disappointment for Arthur. Sidelined, Bart joins the school choir as an assistant technician, which is right up his alley. But when the music teacher overhears Bart singing to himself, she realizes that he has a great voice and encourages him to audition for the lead role in the school musical, which Bart reluctantly does. To the surprise of everyone in town, Bart wows the audience as Curly in “Oklahoma”—including his grandmother, Memaw, whose home spun reaction of “mercy me” to his amazing voice becomes the name of the group that Bart eventually forms.

Beyond school, Bart is depicted singing in church and it’s clear that music is his love—and the hope he hangs onto in the midst of the turmoil at home with his father. Even though Arthur tells him he will fail, when it comes time to graduate Bart breaks up with Shannon to go to Oklahoma City to form a Christian band instead of going to college. Soon, his fledgling group—MercyMe—is gaining a following on the road primarily doing covers of praise and worship songs. In one particularly powerful scene, Bart tells the audience the story of when he was a 10-year-old boy in need of hope and a father as the introduction to Keith Green’s well-known song, “Oh Lord, you’re beautiful.”

Although Shannon repeatedly spurns Bart’s calls from the road to join them on tour, before long MercyMe attracts Scott Brickell as their manager. And while Brickell doesn’t think they’re ready for the big time yet, he’s willing to work with them—eventually setting up a meeting in Nashville with a group of influential record label executives at an important gospel music industry gathering. Here, MercyMe performs at some of the smaller venues and Bart meets some of the biggest names in the business, including Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. In a painful scene juxtaposed with flashbacks to Bart’s father telling him he will never succeed, Bart embarrasses himself in front of a group of label execs who don’t see a future for the group—undermining Brickell’s efforts on behalf of MercyMe. This forces Bart to apologize to his fellow band members and prompts a difficult conversation between him and Brickell, who asks what he’s running from. When Bart replies that it’s his dad, Brickell tells him to write about it and let his pain become his inspiration.

At this point Bart decides to take a break from the group to return home and reconcile things with his father. And while Bart dreads facing Arthur again, he is surprised—and somewhat skeptical—to see that his father has changed and become a Christian while he was away. He is also surprised to learn that his dad has terminal cancer. Here, there are several emotionally powerful and very well-acted scenes in which Bart angrily confronts Arthur about the years of pain and abuse—before coming to a place of forgiveness and healing. Ultimately, it’s clear that Bart is a lot like his father, and they redeem the time by sharing special moments like going to church together and restoring a jeep. Bart also does a lot of journaling, and Arthur encourages him to reconnect with Shannon. And in a sign of just how much Arthur has changed, he tells Bart that his music is a great gift and gives tells him his life insurance and savings to chase his dreams.

As I CAN ONLY IMAGINE reaches its climax, the final scenes center around an emotionally powerful encounter between Amy Grant and Bart in which a song that came together in about ten minutes—but which took a lifetime to write—is magnificently performed by the person it rightfully belongs to, in front of an audience member who matters the most. Here, it would be surprising if there is a dry eye in the theater as the credits roll.     


Family Viewing Suitability

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At 110 minutes in length, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE is rated PG for thematic elements including some mild violence. And while there is no sex, nudity, or profanity, caution should be exercised by parents with children who may be sensitive to seeing non-gratuitous outbursts of verbal and physical abuse.


Entertainment Value

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I CAN ONLY IMAGINE is an emotionally engaging story that powerfully speaks to one of the deepest longings of the human heart—redemption. Its well-written script comes to life in the able hands of the Erwin Brothers, who bring the best out of a strong cast—with notable performances by Dennis Quaid, Madeline Carroll, and J. Michael Finley in his film debut.

But perhaps the biggest star of I CAN ONLY IMAGINE is the music. From the opening scenes to the closing credits, this film offers a steady stream of wonderful music—including both pop and Christian hits—spanning multiple decades that will likely appeal to moviegoers of all ages. Most importantly, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE tells the deeply personal stories of Arthur and Bart Millard in a way that offers hope for redemption, healing and reconciliation that will positively impact many lives and encourage both faith-driven and secular audiences alike to seriously consider what it will be like to meet Jesus face to face.


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