There are a lot of movies that try to be inspirational and extoll Christian values, but many of them are either too preachy, too superficial, too inept, or too obviously made by people who don't understand true day-to-day Christianity well enough to convincingly portray it onscreen. And then there's Alex Kendrick's FLYWHEEL (2003), an independent feature shot on video in Georgia for about $20,000, that manages to get it right.
Used car dealer Jay Austin (Kendrick, a Southern Baptist pastor in real life) is a first-class heel who cheats his customers, verbally abuses his wife, and ignores his son. While begrudgingly accompanying his family to church on Sunday, he flicks an empty envelope into the collection plate. Even when his own minister comes to the lot to buy a car for his daughter, Jay takes advantage of his trust to overcharge him thousands of dollars. In other words, he's a heartless jackass and we hate him.
As it turns out, he's beginning to hate himself, too. A particularly nasty blow-up at his pregnant wife Judy (Janet Lee Dapper) during dinner one night finally causes him to see the gulf he's created between himself and his family.
This, coupled with a growing regret for all the dishonesty and deception he inflicts on his unsuspecting customers every day, has become a burden that his conscience can no longer bear. And so, one fateful day, he decides to turn his life over to God and try to regain his soul, even if it means losing his car dealership to the bank and having to start from scratch.
This is where these stories often end--the lost soul sees the light, a new life has begun, praise the Lord, amen. But in this story, as is usually the case in real life, Jay finds that changing direction is just the start of a long and difficult journey that will test his faith every step of the way. This includes making amends not only to his wife and son, but to every single person he's ever cheated in his business as well.
The characters and events in FLYWHEEL have an understated realism that is natural and unforced, with no "big" moments or "Look, ma, I'm actin'!" scenes to dazzle us. The humor (I laughed out loud a couple of times) comes naturally from situations we can readily identify with, and so does the pathos.
When a story is presented in this way, it better be good or it's going to be a dismal bore. But Alex Kendrick's simple yet finely-crafted screenplay leads us through a consistently compelling series of emotional twists and turns that never seem to derive from anything less than a true understanding of spirituality.
And it helps that the unpaid, all-volunteer cast play their parts with utter conviction even though, in some cases, their acting skills may be a bit unrefined. Richie Hunnewell, the little boy who plays Jay's neglected son, is particularly effective.
Kendrick himself plays Jay with such deliberate restraint that you hardly see any technique at all, which lends a great deal of believability to his character. When Jay's father (Roger Breland) shows up at the car lot one day to pray with his son for help and guidance, Jay is so moved that his eyes glisten with tears. And it seems as though Kendrick the actor isn't just acting here--he's feeling what his character is feeling.
Another thing that rings true about this story is that Jay doesn't just suddenly transform into a faith-fueled Super Christian who need only gaze piously at the heavens for God to start firing miracles at him on demand. He has to struggle through a lot of hardship and self-doubt to regain his wife's love, his son's respect, and his own integrity.
The final outcome of the story comes close to matching the sheer outpouring of joy felt at the end of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and for the main character, it's similarly well-earned.
Even if you don't believe in God, you may find this to be a wonderfully moving story of redemption. And if you do, it's a powerful affirmation. Alex Kendrick is one of the few filmmakers I've seen who can show us people on their knees praying fervently to God as though they really mean it. In a sublimely unaffected, matter-of-fact way, FLYWHEEL beautifully captures what it means to practice true Christianity as a lifestyle, and not just a religion.
Buy it at Amazon.com