Faith — the old-fashioned kind, call it spiritual or religious — is a feeling of earthly but ethereal belief. Yet most of the movies that get lumped into the category known as “faith-based” have a ploddingly literal, you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it quality. They’re about having faith in something beyond the here and now, yet they tend to hinge on miracles that are as quantifiable and high concept as a secular person’s dogged rationality.
Take, for instance, “Mighty Oak.” It’s one of the first movies to be released in theaters since the onset of the pandemic, and technically speaking it’s not a “faith-based film.” Which is to say: It doesn’t come wrapped in some tidy-as-a-bow pious message specifically targeted to the Evangelical market. No, this is a fuzzy-headed, badly made cheeseball schlock fable for everyone!
Yet the movie, which tells the story of a cherubic 10-year-old rock ‘n’ roll prodigy, is all about believing in the mystical phenomenon that is reincarnation. So yes, it’s a faith-based film.
But “Mighty Oak” is a faith-based film that wouldn’t look out of place on the Disney Channel, even if this one has nothing to do with Disney. It’s a Paramount release, coming to a drive-in theater or Midwestern megaplex not quite so near you. And if you venture out to see it in that context, you may have a moment of “OMG! Is this the future of movies?” horror. You might wonder if this is going to be the dystopian legacy of cinema: sitting around in a drive-in or a megaplex, watching a piece of genial trivia and pretending that you’re having fun.
Well, I’m here to assure you: It’s not the future. It’s just the first half of June!
“Mighty Oak” opens with Gina (Janel Parrish, from “Pretty Little Liars”), the manager of a San Diego rock band called Army of Love, trying to get the band to go up on stage at a local club, which means navigating the whims of the sexy lead singer, an Eddie Vedder knockoff named Vaughn (Levi Dylan), who happens to be Gina’s brother. They’re a band on the rise — it turns out they’ve just landed the dream gig of opening for Arcade Fire for three shows at the Hollywood Bowl. But on their night drive up to Los Angeles, they smash into another car on the freeway, an accident that leaves Vaughn dead, and the band’s dreams in tatters.
Cut to 10 years later. The band members are still living in the Ocean Beach district of San Diego, and so is Gina (who now has blue hair), all of them toiling away at nothing jobs. But that’s when fate allows Gina to cross paths with Oak (Tommy Ragen), a mop-topped kid who’s a geek at school but happens to be a rock ‘n’ roll wizard. He lives with his sickly, druggie mom (Alexa Penavega) above the coffee shop the band used to hang at, and D.B. (Rodney Hicks), who owns the place, gives him Vaughn’s old Taylor guitar.
It’s at this point that Gina starts to notice something. Oak, in the coffee shop, points with devil-horn fingers toward a photograph of Vaughn on the wall; cut to a flashback of Vaughn onstage, holding up devil horns. And Oak sounds just like him! Could Oak — gulp! — be the reincarnation of Vaughn?
Before we go on, let’s state one cosmic truth: No child should ever be named Oak. But here’s how “Mighty Oak” plays out. If Oak isn’t the reincarnation of Vaughn, then we’re watching a pointless dumb Afterschool Special about a nerdy precocious kid who’s starring in his own school of rock. But if Oak is the reincarnation of Vaughn, then it means we can give into that metaphysical woo feeling: The universe is connected! As Army of Love reunites, with Oak as their lead singer, Tommy Ragen, who actually looks like he’s going to grow up to be Tom Chaplin of Keane, convinces you that he can sing, thrash, and play lead guitar. And Janel Parrish, playing a woman nicknamed “Jean Jacket” (yes, it’s that kind of movie), has more arcade fire than any of her co-stars. Especially when no one believes that her dead rock-star brother has come back to life.
But the director, Sean McNamara, keeps hitting the most ragged of cliché notes. A Hallmark romantic scene is posed in front of a Hallmark beach sunset. The same establishing shot of Lestat’s Apartments above the coffee shop is used about 12 times. A subplot about how Vaughn’s guitar goes missing is so sketchy it barely makes sense. “Mighty Oak” is the kind of movie that turns reincarnation into cardboard.