I watched October Baby in the theater recently. Inspired by the dramatic life of anti-abortion activist Gianna Jessen, the film tells the story of Hannah (Rachel Hendrix), who learns in early adulthood that she was adopted after a failed abortion. She embarks on a journey to find herself by finding her mother and by learning more about the circumstances of her birth.
I wholly endorse the pro-life message of the movie, which comes across with such utter clarity that I have heard of viewers changing their position on abortion after the film. In one crucial scene, a nurse describes how she came to view a fetus as an unborn child rather than a lump of tissue. It hits all the right notes. Reviewers have complained that the scene is gory. As if abortion isn’t—or Tarantino for that matter.
As a film, though, October Baby fails. No convincing explanation is given as to why Hannah’s parents withheld her adoption so long. Hannah’s mother never comes into focus. Alanna (Colleen Trusler), Hannah’s rival for the love of her childhood friend Jason (Jason Burkey), is unbearable, raising uncomfortable questions about Jason’s taste in women. The side characters—Hannah’s friends with whom she takes a long road trip—are as enjoyable as any movie-cliché crazies can be.
The deeper problem is that the film is more message than movie. Co-directors and brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin do a better job than some Christian filmmakers in keeping the message from burying the film, but they don’t control it well enough. They don’t appear to trust the medium they have chosen to use. They don’t appear to trust the audience either, or the characters they have created for us.
Like many Christian filmmakers, the Erwins can’t resist “preaching” moments. Sure, non-Christian films can be plenty preachy, but preachiness is a disease to which evangelical filmmakers are especially susceptible. The nurse’s scene is more subdued than many preaching scenes, but it is still a preaching scene. Other Christian filmmakers are even less resistant to the temptation. I am impressed with the chutzpah and drive of the group at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, that has produced Courageous, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants. But these films don’t respect us enough to let us figure out the point of the film, which is as obvious as all get out. From the first frames, you know that a monologue will eventually sum up the film’s moral, and you half-suspect that the monologue will be followed by a joyous standing ovation. It’s like painting a crucifixion scene and then writing out the Passion narrative of Matthew at the bottom to make sure viewers get the point.
The TPF test has become my criterion for determining whether a film was made by evangelical Christians, TPF standing for “Tear-Per-Frame.” In October Baby, hardly a scene goes by without someone weeping. Abortion is heart-rending, and Hannah’s life is heart-breaking. The point is, we can see that already, just by watching the characters in their story. We don’t need to be manipulated to sharing their grief.
Christian directors—any director—could do worse than take some cues from Terence Malick’s 2011 masterpiece Tree of Life. Though Malick’s is a profoundly religious and a deeply emotional film, he refuses to coddle his viewers. His self-control, and control of his audience, is exquisite. Early in the film, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram informing her that her second son has died at the age of nineteen. The camera follows her to the dining room but cuts as she stumbles to the ground. We don’t even hear the end of her anguished prayer, “O, Go-!” Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) gets the news in a phone call as he is about to board a plane. He can barely hear over the phone, and all we hear are engines and propellers. He labors to breathe, grinds his jaw, stands fixed, leans forward with hands on knees, stares at the setting sun. He sheds no tears, but because of its restraint, it communicates Mr. O’Brien’s paralyzing grief and leaves the viewer as empty as the desert Sean Penn limps through during the film.
Tree of Life tells a Job story, complete with a comforter who says things like “You still have the other two.” It’s about inexplicable loss, raising Dostoevskyan questions about suffering innocence and the justice of God. “Where were you?” Mrs. O’Brien demands of God, and the film answers with a long creation sequence that portrays Yahweh’s answer to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” It’s a “preaching” moment, but the preaching is done with gorgeous visuals and breathtaking music. It’s movie preaching, not a movie of preaching.
My advice to earnest filmmakers with a message: Make movies. Let the message take care of itself. Or, as the St. Francis school of cinematography has it: Preach always and everywhere; when necessary, use words. ,plbio
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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