I guess there’s a pretty good market for this Christian stuff, then?”

That was a throwaway line in the middle of a scene between the two romantic leads of “I’m In Love with a Church Girl,” played by Ja Rule and Adrienne Bailon, but it might as well have been the Freudian rationale for this film’s existence. Writer and producer Galley Molina may have had the purest motives for this release, but its script and direction seem to be communicating an auxiliary message from its stated intent – See? Christians can be cool! We even got a real rapper!

It pains me to say that because the central message of the film – that God uses all of our circumstances for His glory and for our transformation into who He’s called us to be – is a great message. And it’s not that its central premise of a high-rolling drug dealer falling for a church girl and his life turning upside down is a bad one. That’s Molina’s story, and I give him credit for being willing to adapt it into a feature film and invest his own resources into telling it. But pulling off a movie like this means striking the right balance between being safe enough for the church audiences who will support the film financially, but “street” enough to attract a mainstream audience. This film does the first well, but laughably flails in its attempts to do the second. And it’s not the production values that are the problem.

In terms of the look and feel of the film, “Church Girl” looks legit. The aerial shots are there, the soaring musical cues are right on the money, the slow-motion gangsta postures in the club, the getting-the-crew-together montages…it’s all there. It all feels like a “real movie…” which is, I guess, so much of the problem. This movie tries so hard. So hard! Just to feel like it’s doing everything right. If anything, it could’ve used a little indie film, rough-around-the-edges type vibe, just to help viewers relax and get into it.

Molina clearly has a lot of experience in the entertainment industry, and his pastoral heart is evident enough (he has a cameo as a pastor), but his writing, combined with director Steve Race’s visuals, makes the whole thing seem so heavy handed. I wonder if some overbearing church lady hovered over Molina and Race on set and in the edit bay, scowling and complaining that the movie isn’t holy enough (which might explain the final introductory credit listing God as executive producer). Ease up, church lady!

The film has real moments of authenticity, such as the climactic scene where Rule’s character Miles Montego cries out in anguish to God, but it starts off so stilted that it almost becomes a parody of itself. There’s a moment after Miles’ opening verbal salvo, where it cuts to the stained glass face of Jesus, looking regal, stately and distant. It probably wasn’t supposed to be funny, but it was, to me.

Ja Rule and Adrienne Bailon have decent chemistry in the film, and the supporting work from holy hip-hop veteran Rene Sotomayor (a.k.a T-Bone) as Montego’s right hand, plus brief appearances by Vincent Pastore, (“The Sopranos”), Daniel P. Conte (“Goodfellas”), and Michael Madsen (“Reservoir Dogs”) all help to elevate the proceedings, but their acting can only do so much with such clunky writing.

Israel Houghton’s involvement will be a big draw to gospel music fans, and in that respect, the film does not disappoint. The soundtrack has plenty of funk, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop to fill the movie’s pivotal moments, including a new recording of a Houghton classic, “I Surrender.” As a fan of Christian music in general, I enjoyed appearances by T-Bone and TobyMac, not only onscreen but through their musical cues. (Though I did roll my eyes pretty hard at a scene in a fictional Christian bookstore, plugging T-Bone’s “Bone-A-Fide” album. Christian bookstores with CDs, in tech-savvy northern Cali? What is this, 2003?)

Artistic sensibilities aside, I also wonder if some of the details in “Church Girl” might be sending unintentionally misleading messages about the realities of dating and courtship. I know that part of the tension in stories like this is in watching the bad boy test the good girl’s boundaries[i], but it was somewhat frustrating watching Vanessa’s character be so knowledgeable about the Bible and full of upstanding Christian conduct, and yet react so naively to Miles’ advances. Any adolescent or teenage girls in attendance should be lovingly engaged in a post-movie debrief, otherwise they may walk out of the film thinking that the moral is that missionary dating is perfectly fine as long as the dude makes enough money to regularly buy lavish gifts.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of good messages and performances in “Church Girl,” which is probably enough for many of the churchgoing faithful in the target audience. And I must admit, it’s refreshing to watch a film so doggone earnest in its presentation of its worldview–considering how much snark and sarcasm tends to rule the day. Here’s to hoping earnest makes a comeback.

[i][i][i] A riskier version of this film would’ve included Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” somewhere in the initial meet-cute scenario. As much as I detest the message of that song, it could’ve been used here to good effect.

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