When He rolls up his sleeves / He ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz….
If you immediately—perhaps even reflexively—are able to finish singing the above lyrics to the Rich Mullins-penned classic of contemporary Christian worship music, then the Netflix-produced jukebox musical A Week Away is made especially for you. With a plethora of references to 1980s John Hughes coming-of-age films—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is especially prominent—and filled with well-known songs from 1990s CCM giants such as Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Amy Grant, A Week Away is marked by a conspicuous sense of nostalgia. In fact, it’s banking on it. Marketed as a family-friendly Christian version of the Camp Rock or High School Musical franchises, the film is simultaneously derivative and delightful. A Week Away won’t make any new converts, but it will make its intended audience smile, or even sing along.
The teenage Will Hawkins (Kevin Quinn, a veritable Zac Efron clone) finds himself in trouble with the law after stealing a police car. An orphan and a delinquent, Will is given a unique option: spend his remaining teen years in juvenile detention, or spend a week at a Christian summer camp with a Black foster mom, Kristin (Sherri Shepherd), and her geeky-but-charming teen son, George (Jahbril Cook). This leads Will to “the great adventure” (cue a SCC number) of a week at Camp Aweegaway, filled with intense team-based competitions and the blossoming of chastely Christian adolescent love. Will is immediately attracted to Avery (Bailee Madison), the cute and confident daughter of the camp director (David Koechner, in a decidedly non-Anchorman role), while George is captivated by the equally-timid Presley (Kat Conner Sterling). Apart from Will’s attempts to hide his unruly (and non-Christian) background from his fellow campers—particularly the overzealous and competitive Sean (Iain Tucker)—it’s all quite innocent and lacking in significant conflicts. Though the film makes a tiny attempt to address the theological question of the problem of evil through Will’s grief over his deceased parents, it generally glosses over those deeper issues with simplistic answers or another upbeat song. When the truth does come out about Will’s history and he feels prompted to run away, it’s entirely expected; we know how this story will play out, how all things will work together for good. Indeed, that’s kind of the point of such Christian films—it’s pure, affirming, uplifting content where the girls only wear one-piece swimsuits and the boys are all avid dodgeball players.
There are plenty of aspects which will resonate with the American evangelical audience this film is made for. From the Nashville setting, to the Braveheart and Gladiator references, to the weepy campfire testimonies, the world felt mostly recognizable to my own evangelical upbringing. Yet it’s the songs that are the most familiar, and thus the most enjoyable. For instance, as Will approaches the summer camp inflatable “blob” to jump into the lake, he begins singing SCC’s “Dive.” Dear reader, I felt seen. The CCM renditions and original music numbers from Adam Watts are all solid, if not particularly memorable. Director Roman White has made music videos for Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, and it shows here; the camerawork enhances the choreography, and the actors/dancers exhibit that Disney-esque celebratory joy as they sing and dance. Overall, Christian audiences will likely be satisfied with the blandly earnest product.
Which leads me to a reflection on the nature of Christian art in general, and the contemporary “Christian film” phenomenon in particular. What, precisely, makes a film “Christian”? Did the movie accept Jesus Christ as its personal Lord and Savior? Is it made by a filmmaker with a Christian background, such as Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, or Andrei Tarkovsky? Does it contain Christian religious stories or theological content? A Week Away conspicuously avoids religiously-laden terms like “Jesus” or “sin” while still including just enough God-content to make sure the label applies. And other recent films like Minari, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Sound of Metal, or Time each include overtly Christian themes or characters in much more compelling and contemplative ways, but wouldn’t ordinarily be called “Christian” films. Perhaps the terms “Christian” and “faith-based” have essentially become a marketing tool for selling filmic content—notice I didn’t say cinematic art—to a particular demographic of the largely American audience, namely white evangelicals. It’s a lucrative tactic, as faith-based films can have an enormous return on investment. As much as I enjoyed being pandered to, I also wonder if A Week Away exists mainly as a Netflix-funded inroad for pleasing the conservative Christian consumer, a consumer who may have considered cancelling their Netflix subscription after the Cuties controversy of last year. To be sure, there is a rich and beautiful history of Christian art, including cinematic art. But it’s questionable as to whether the pleasantly bland A Week Away fits within this historical trajectory, as its Christian elements often are more like a brand being sold than a faith being lived. As I watched A Week Away on Netflix, the content warning in the top corner at the film’s opening stated simply this: “this film contains product placement.” Let the reader understand.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11388278/