When life forces you into a corner, where do you turn? For millions upon millions of people, the answer is faith and religion. The belief in a higher power has helped countless folks overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As such, it is a little sad that the term “Christian film” carries a stigma of being cheap, pandering, awkwardly acted, stilted productions. Mind you, those films did that to themselves, as they only wish to rile up those who already believe by giving them something so sanitized it is safe for anyone but also lacking in real human drama or quality filmmaking. Enter Southern Gospel, written and directed by Jeffery A. Smith.
Based on a true story, this religious-centric drama is about Samuel. His father, Joe (Gary Weeks), is a pastor, though things have been difficult after his wife/the boy’s mom died. However, both men stayed faithful until years later. Now a young adult, Samuel (Max Ehrich) witnesses a terrible tragedy as a friend drowns. Blaming himself, the man turns to his best friend, Barry (J. Alphonse Nicholson), and the two join a band. Unfortunately, while on cocaine, they crash their car, leaving one band member dead, Barry severely injured, and Samuel dazed and confused.
Due to police mishandling the evidence and that Samuel wasn’t driving, he gets off pretty light all things considered: community service. Specifically, he is to have speaking engagements about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. This reignites Samuel’s love of preaching and reunites him with his first love, Julie (Katelyn Nacon). The two quickly start a romance, and Samuel becomes the preacher of his father’s church. However, Barry is succumbing to temptation, and another man, T.L. (Justice Leak), wants the pulpit for himself. Has Samuel truly turned a corner, or will he fall back into old, dangerous habits?
“…reignites Samuel’s love of preaching and reunites him with his first love…”
Even if one isn’t devout, Southern Gospel is quite entertaining. For starters, Ehrich is a charmer, commanding the screen with confidence and poise. His singing abilities are top-rate as well, meaning the extensive musical numbers are a real treat. Complimenting him in every way is Nacon, who delivers the most heartbreaking speech in the film. She also has a terrific voice and elevates the songs and the material by extension. Weeks is fun as the father/pastor, while Leak makes for a complicated baddie (of sorts). Finally, Nicholson is great, especially during a tragic phone call to his best friend.
Smith keeps the pace chugging along nicely for the most part. His screenplay exists in the real world: these Christians sometimes cuss, drink, and live in the real world. That makes this story accessible to anyone, not just believers. However, some things are far too rushed. Samuel’s proposal to Julie really comes out of left field, as do certain turns at the end. Running less than 2 hours, the film could have added a few scenes to help the audience feel the impact of what’s happening a bit more.
Still, Southern Gospel is better than expected faith entertainment. The cast is excellent, the direction is solid, and the period dressing works very well. As such, this is one of the best, perhaps the very best, Christian films released to date.
For more information, visit the official Southern Gospel site.
"…the cast is excellent, the direction is solid..."