Here are three descriptors for a movie that you thought you’d never see placed together: “faith-based,” “comedy” and “produced by WWE Studios.” Somehow, “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone” fits all three. It’s the story of a washed-up, hard partying former child star, Gavin Stone (Brett Dalton), who finds redemption at a church in his small hometown. He initially shows up to perform some court-mandated community service hours, and sticks around to participate in a church play, playing Jesus Christ himself. Turns out that all that getting into character can’t help but rub off on him.
Christian-themed cinema has been evolving as of late, with higher quality, more mainstream projects like the Easter period epic “Risen,” and the Jennifer Garner-starring medical melodrama “Miracles From Heaven.” But many have stayed in the lane of remarkable true stories or Biblical adaptations. That’s why “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” directed by Dallas Jenkins, will be a breath of fresh air for Christian audiences — it represents what modern Christian life actually looks like, with a sense of irreverence and a knowing point of view.
Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, a stand-up comic who appeared on sketch comedy show “MADtv,” plays the pastor’s daughter, the director of the play. She’s kept on a short leash as the uptight Kelly, an immovable force on whom Gavin attempts to use his charm. Though Johnson-Reyes sports comedy bona fides on her resume, her character is overly tame, anchoring the dramatic side and bringing the tone way down.
The WWE connection comes in the presence of Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels, aka The Heartbreak Kid, a practicing Christian himself, who turns in a supporting performance as churchgoing tough guy Doug. Michaels will no doubt draw some die-hard wrestling fans to the film.
As for the comic element: Technically it’s a comedy, but laugh-out-loud this is not. Written by Andrea Gyertson Nasfell, it’s an achievement for this genre, as it’s much lighter than most faith-based films, and it isn’t afraid to poke some fun at cultural stereotypes, including its own. Gavin’s LA lifestyle, including predilections for yoga or anything organic, is played for laughs, scoffed at by his no-nonsense father (Neil Flynn). Much of the humor comes from the culture clash, and Gavin’s fish-out-of-water experiences faking it as a Christian, offering up too-eager exclamations of “blessings!” at Sunday services.
Like the Christian characters in the film, “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone” isn’t pushy with its message. The characters espouse an ethos of leading by example, offering the space and their own grace, letting Gavin discover his faith himself. There’s a specific agenda, but it’s framed as a personal, individual journey that the audience is privy to.
What makes “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone” singular is its fresh and thoroughly modern approach to evangelical Christianity. It’s a sunny, positive portrayal that skirts any of the negative issues that could be associated with the religion, positioning it as a welcoming, forgiving community for anyone and everyone. It’s certainly a portrayal we haven’t often seen before, and marks a new direction for films targeted at that audience. It may even draw a new believer or two, but there’s still a long way to go to totally nail the faith-based comedy genre.