Judge Joel Pearce was expecting to see Groucho and Chico in this one.
In every man's life there is a turning point.
Sometimes, reviewers get assignments that are very challenging to write. For me, religious films might be the most difficult of all to handle. After all, they set themselves up to run by a different set of rules. This isn't necessarily a problem for the target audience, but it creates serious problems for everyone else. From what angle am I supposed to approach a film like Flywheel?
Facts of the Case
Jay Austin's (Alex Kendrick, Facing the Giants) life is spinning out of control. He is a skilled used car salesman, who prides himself on being able to sell any car for much more than it's really worth. Unfortunately, he is quickly learning that his own cleverness simply isn't enough to make ends meet. He's made some serious financial mistakes, which have left him facing an impossibly large debt. In a panic, Jay turns to God for help, and decides to turn his act around. But is it too late for him to save his business, life, and family?
I am going to write three short reviews for Flywheel. I don't think I can do justice to it any other way.
Arguably, this film is best viewed as an example of Christian film. It's created by evangelical Christians for evangelical Christians, a reinforcement of the values and ideas that Kendrick already knows will resonate with his pre-existing audience. We are reminded that we are not supposed to rely on our own skills, but rather put our complete faith in God, and that he will take care of us.
As such, Flywheel actually works quite well. It has much better production values than we are used to seeing in such entertainment, and the performances are impressive. It never has that squeaky-clean feel that so much of its peers do, and we genuinely believe the tension and trouble that Jay faces at home and on the job. There are several powerhouse moments in the script, which will cause the right audience to cheer excitedly.
Unfortunately, there is one major problem. There's no guarantee that things will work smoothly for us, even when we are following the biblical commands. We'll probably still have to pay for former mistakes, and we will suffer the natural consequences of the mistakes we have made. While Flywheel isn't as syrupy as it could have been, things still turn out a bit too neatly. Christians who listen to stories like these too closely are often disappointed when things don't play out right for them. Still, Christians who find their entertainment needs aren't met by Hollywood will probably find a lot to like in this wholesome example of Christian entertainment. Especially considering that this was the Kendricks' first film, it works out surprisingly well.
As an evangelistic tool, Flywheel is somewhat less impressive. This has mainly to do with the same problem as above. In essence, Christianity is trumpeted as a sort of "mystical cure-all," a way to behave that will solve all of your problems, albeit with a few unpleasant months of getting turned around. If this film is to be believed, the right attitude and prayer will solve our financial problems, our broken relationships, our own shortcomings, and our jobs in the matter of months. While I certainly don't want to dismiss the power of prayer in people's lives, the ultimate portrait is far too rosy. Skeptics won't be convinced by the evidence presented here, and will probably walk out of the screening with plenty of eye-rolling.
This is compounded by a frightful amount of "churchspeak." Only people raised in an evangelical environment will feel immediately at home with the dialogue of this film, and anyone who didn't grow up near churches will probably feel strangely alienated partway through. Even the supposedly non-church people in the film tend to speak in churchisms throughout. While the Christians mentioned above will proudly claim Flywheel as their own, they will most certainly receive a lukewarm reception when they share it with their heathen friends.
Finally, I should study Flywheel as an example of film entertainment. This is going to sound harsher than it should, but Christians often seem tickled by Christian entertainment that they wouldn't even watch if it was secular. This has always been true of the Christian music industry, and it applies to film as well. As I said before, this is an unusually good Christian film, but as a recent indie flick, it falls short in a few ways.
Firstly, Flywheel lasts almost twice as long as it should. The film is broken into a number of plot segments. In the first segment, we are introduced to the characters and situations. Then Jay has a crisis. Then he turns his life around and averts the crisis. There are other segments, though, which reach far beyond the logical conclusion of the film. There's no question that the film would be more successful with 30 minutes trimmed from the running time.
Flywheel also seems about ten years behind in its portrayal of various people. The jokes about Jay's fat employees wear thin really quickly, and I was also unsettled by the portrayal of some minor black characters. The secular industry has moved beyond such caricatures in serious entertainment, and the Kendrick brothers needs to catch up fast.
There is also the problem of the central metaphor. The repair of Jay's classic Triumph comes along with some seriously blatant symbolism, which we simply don't need in order to understand the film. I'm pretty surprised that this is a director's cut, in which he has come back several years later to recut the film. There are editing problems here that should have been caught the first time, let alone after a second attempt.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sony has done a solid job delivering Flywheel on DVD. The film's low-budget roots show in the presentation—a non-anamorphic widescreen video transfer and a lackluster stereo soundtrack. Considering the quality of the source material, I'm not sure it really makes much difference. Still, the transfer makes Flywheel look as good as you could possibly expect. There's also a solid load of special features on the disc, including a commentary by Alex and Stephen Kendrick. It's a refreshingly honest commentary, and a good technical approach to guerrilla filmmaking. There's also a production featurette and some deleted scenes, along with a healthy smattering of outtakes and bloopers. Through all of these features, it's clear that the Kendrick brothers were intensely involved in the production of the DVD. Fans of the film will be highly impressed by the treatment it has received here.
I realize that I've been pretty hard on Flywheel. This is the first film that the Kendrick brothers made, and they learned a lot from it. It comes to us after Facing the Giants, when they have already put into practice so many lessons that they've learned about filmmaking. For an independent church production, though, I have to admit that this is better than most of the professionally produced Christian films I've seen. For Christians who are hungry for more wholesome entertainment, I can recommend Flywheel without hesitation.
Flywheel has many flaws, but its sincerity and faith redeems it.
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