In this classic Christian film, Tim Hughes (Tim Elwell) is a bad boy. You know the type – he’s the kind of kid who steals an ice cream truck in order to drive to the beach and give out free ice cream to all the kids there. Damn him and his worldly ways! After this latest jaunt on the wrong side of the law, Tim’s parents know that something must be done. In order to help him change his ways, his parents (outspoken critics of religion, mind you) decide that the best option is to ship him off to a Christian camp in Wisconsin.
There’s a short montage of Tim swimming and laughing and rafting and sleeping in a bunk bed and then suddenly he’s back home. It was a week-long vacation, but during that time our man has found Jesus. He’s a born-again Christian now, ain’t nothing gonna hold him back. It’s interesting that the movie totally bypasses explaining what it was that led him to suddenly reverse everything in his life (“the power of Christ compelled him”, I guess?), but then again, since the movie is not targeted toward the unbeliever, perhaps it’s not so incredible after all. Part of that is because the movie is not about Tim’s conversion to Christianity, so much as it is about how uncomfortable he is once he has converted.
I think this is a pretty neat message, one that I haven’t really seen before. The friends that Tim had in his previous life are no longer suitable for him, since their idea of fun is drinking and driving, vandalism, and countless other shenanigans. Tim may be new to this whole Jesus thing, but he knows that ain’t no room for shenanigans in his life now. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to lose his friendships and he certainly does not want to be insulted for his changing behavior. But there’s not really a lot he can be insulted for – about the only change he makes in his life, aside from no longer being sent to jail, is that he begins going to church and encouraging others to join him. Annoying, maybe, but hardly the cause for alarm that his parents seem to think it is. Tim is torn about his lifestyle change at home, too, as his parents worry about where he’s headed in his life and read books with titles like (I am not joking at all here): “How to De-Program Your Child from Christianity”.
On the same hand, Tim’s new Christian friends aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be either. One girl in particular takes Tim under her wing, but – believe it or not – she’s as petty as any non-believer. She sneers at people she doesn’t like, she is manipulative, she steps on or over those who get in her way. Now Tim’s got an uphill battle from both sides, not sure how to let his secular friends down easy about his change in behavior, and now also unsure how to stay committed to the Christian ideals he inexplicably picked up at a one-week summer camp in the face of a less-than sincere compatriot.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that this is a genuinely interesting idea, the movie fails to deliver on its promise. First, there is the fact that the unreliability of his new Christian friend is not clearly explained. Tim never calls her out or even broaches the subject with her, instead putting all of his focus into converting his friend Marty (who, it should be noted, likes to party). I was interested in this idea that many who profess to be Christians do not adhere to the tenets of the faith, but aside from one throwaway line delivered by a secondary character, this idea is not addressed directly.
In fact, nothing is addressed directly. Tim’s parents show concern for his changed life, and Tim talks a lot of talk about Jesus, but the biggest change in his life is that he starts attending church. I suppose it’s true that he becomes more active in the community, but a large part of that is just hanging around with his church-going friends. There’s no deeper exploration of how Tim’s conversion might affect his relationships. It’s hinted at, in the fact that there is some tension between these different factions, but it is not well covered. The most we get from Marty is a “why don’t we hang out anymore” and a “I tried to kill myself because I don’t believe in God”. A friendship that has spanned these characters’ entire lives has been disrupted by this extremely sudden change, and this is the best we get? It reminds me of a moment in C Me Dance, another Christian film, wherein one girl confronts another about her unbelief… and it is explained away as daddy issues. Perhaps wanting the movie to be more serious about the ramifications of Tim’s choices is too much to expect. After all, Christian cinema famously traffics in straw men and one-dimensionality. But I hold out hope for something better.
Or, at the very least, something funnier. Returning to C Me Dance, that movie was a laugh-a-minute thrill ride about a teenage ballerina who is being hunted by the devil. There are very few instances of unintentional hilarity here, which is disappointing. There is one bizarre moment where the family is driving along and Tim’s mother exclaims, “Look, there’s McDonald’s!” The camera cuts to the restaurant for a few seconds, and the moment is forgotten. Aside from a few off-putting line readings, though, this is about the extent of the humor.
I am ashamed to say that Never Ashamed isn’t as great as it could have been – and that’s a shame. It has some heady ideas but barely scratches the surface; it has that low-budget appeal that could make it a secret comedy success, but squanders that too. Looking for a great Christian movie is like searching for a diamond in the rough. Never Ashamed is rough.