If you’ve heard about Jarod O’Flaherty’s new film My Son, it’s probably for one reason. The film is making headlines because it’s a Christian film produced by a church in Burleston, TX; a film the Motion Picture Association of America slapped with an “R” rating. The stir over such an anomaly has spread as far as the major news networks. The situation raises lots of questions. Should a Christian film be rated “R?” How should Christians respond to ratings? Is it a publicity stunt? Is the church that produced the film being persecuted? Is the film even worth seeing, and does it stand out from other Christian films? Or from other films at all?
Let’s look at the film first. Any Christian films that currently take a mainstream spotlight are going to be compared to Fireproof, Courageous, and the other films that come out of the Sherwood Pictures Christian movie factory. And indeed, director O’Flaherty says he was influenced by them. He has even said that he believes in “their formula of making ‘God movies’ instead of ‘Good movies’” (begging the question “why can’t a film be both?”). My Son can definitely stand up next to films like Courageous, and in my opinion is even closer to making a “Good movie” (without sacrificing the desire to make it a “God movie”). My Son’s story and characters are much more complex, and it raises harder issues. It’s not afraid to show church people as wrong, vindictive, even ugly. This film has antagonists in the Christian camp, a bold move that many Christian films are afraid to make. It also deals with hard subject matter – children who have abandoned the church, child custody, and ultimately a church shooting. None of this is easy stuff to swallow, and they’re not cut and dried issues.
The production, the direction, and the editing are done with a sure hand. It’s shot with a lot of natural light, all handheld. This is probably a necessity of the low budget, but it remains consistent with the simplicity of the film’s approach. This is an instance of filmmakers recognizing their limitation, and using it to their advantage. Editing and directing both keep the shots interesting, and build an effective tension throughout most of the climax.
The weakest aspects of the film are the acting and writing. This is probably to be expected. While it isn’t something to hold against the performers – they’re surely trying their best – but they are almost all unknown and inexperienced. The acting ranges from fine to quite bad. Writing isn’t awful, but it is clunky at times, especially when it comes to moments dealing with Big Issues. Characters begin to overtalk or become unnaturally eloquent when it comes to things like redemption and forgiveness, which is nothing new in Christian films. They’re hard concepts to deal with, and harder to explain in ways that appeal to the man on the street. Perhaps that’s why thousands of preachers all over the world can speak on them again and again every Sunday. It doesn’t help that the script was written by committee; there are eight credited writers.
Overall, it’s a film that seems to know what it’s doing, but is hampered by the acting, and sometimes by the writing. Because of this, it is unlikely to attract non-Christians, but it still has a lot of good to say to Christians. So the question, then, is how does this “R” rating affect everything? Should Christians not see it? Is the principled approach to avoid this one despite the message and the intent of its creators?
Anyone familiar with More Than One Lesson knows that our answer will be “No”. Though a rating is a warning of the type of content a film has, and the suggested appropriate viewing age, it should not banish a film from Christian homes. Most Christians would not and have not rejected The Passion or Schindler’s List as unwatchable, even if they might not want their younger children to see them. My Son isn’t at the level of those films, but it has this in common – the rating is not a good reason to avoid it.
But is the “R” rating deserved? Executive producer Chuck Kitchens (who also plays a role in the film) has made the charge that the MPAA is persecuting his film, using the “R” rating to limit their appeal to church audiences. He claims that the same wouldn’t be done to the same film without the Christian message. I think this is an overreaction. The content in the movie is fairly tame, but the MPAA cites them for “drug use” and “violence,” both of which are unquestionably present in the film. Are they gratuitous? No. But are they enough to get the “R?” I think the case can be made. It’s on the edge, but the rating is not an out-of-the-blue “scarlet letter” that Kitchens might suggest. Whether or not he’s stirring the pot to drum up press is between him and God. But suffice it to say that the “R” is not persecution.
So where does that leave a film like this? The writers and director took a risk in presenting this story. The risk gave them a rating that’s unpalatable to much of their audience, but they did it in service of the story. The moments that earned the MPAA rating raise the stakes, and ultimately give the film more weight. The filmmakers should accept this, use it as a positive. Proudly proclaim that this is a movie that communicates a God-driven message without shying away from the darker realities of life. The filmmakers and Christian audiences both need to look past the “R” stamped on the outside of the film, and focus on what good there may be inside.