What do you get when you cross “High School Musical” with vacation bible school?
If the word “trainwreck” crossed your mind, you’re probably not alone. The idea of trying to infuse a teenage drama with Christian faith and music might seem like mixing oil and water. Such a project would risk yielding either a string of preachy tunes trying too hard to make Christianity “cool” — or worse, a secular saga thinly veiled by watered-down Christian catch phrases.
But “A Week Away,” Netflix’s first faith-based musical, somehow dodges both fates.
Roman White’s 97-minute film, out March 26, follows delinquent Will Hawkins (Kevin Quinn), who avoids juvenile detention by agreeing to attend a weeklong Christian youth summer camp. Suddenly, he finds himself in a crowd where teams go by the names of “Crimson Angels” and “Azure Apostles,” and where a typical hot seat question is “What’s your favorite book of the Bible?”
So what makes this Christian “High School Musical” worth the watch? Precisely that it’s not just “High School Musical” adorned with hallelujahs and hand-holding. The success of “A Week Away” is not that it’s a sound Christian message dressed up into a musical. It’s a great musical that proclaims Christianity.
The film’s acting talent helps: no flat characters who recite a Christian nugget of wisdoms before taking a bow. When he first arrives at camp, Will laments that he’s stuck with “Jesus freaks,” but he and the audience quickly learn that his new companions are just like him, facing the typical excitements and insecurities of adolescence.
As an orphan with a checkered past, Will tries to fit in and get to know the friendly girl who has caught his eye. That girl, Avery (Bailee Madison), wears a constant smile, but as the camp leader’s daughter, she feels the pressure of always appearing perfect. Meanwhile, Will’s roommate George (Jahbril Cook), a camp veteran, has a serious crush on Avery’s friend Presley (Kat Conner Sterling) but is scared stiff to talk to her.
In relief against these realistic faces, each caricature stands out as intentional — and hilarious. When the entire camp breaks into song and dance about evangelizing the world, Will’s confused “What?” invites a laugh. And when the swaggering oversinger Sean (Iain Tucker) serenades Avery, Will and George’s reaction (“Is he for real?”) assures the audience that they don’t take him seriously either.
As if aware that “Vacation Bible School Musical” was a far-fetched idea, the film pokes fun at its own premise. By doing so, it tackles audience skepticism head-on and clears the air so that it can draw attention to its biggest selling point: the music.
Most of the film’s direct Christian messaging comes through the songs, which is a good thing, because there’s not a dud among them. Thanks to stellar voices and harmonies, performed with catchy arrangements and complex choreographies, each musical number demands attention.
Several are newly arranged versions of Christian songs that some might remember from their own Christian camp experiences, while others were written for the film. Regardless, they all work as musical numbers because they’re not shoehorned into the film; they actually advance the plot.
In one of the first scenes, “The Great Adventure” introduces us to the world of the youth camp. Later, the story hasn’t taken a break for praise and worship when Avery and Will sing a medley of “Awesome God” and “God Only Knows”; they’re grappling with their own uncertainties through the song.
Besides the strong acting and music, “A Week Away” repeatedly indicates a filmmaking team that knows its values and doesn’t feel the need to compromise them to be entertaining. Sean’s outbursts and George’s gaffes deliver humor without vulgarity. In every scene, the teens’ outfits showcase style without immodesty. Will and Avery’s interaction displays heartfelt romance without sensuality.
With these elements, the film reminds us that as Christians, we need not lower our moral standards in order to attract others to the truth; on the contrary, embracing those standards is the best way to uplift those around us.
And that’s exactly what “A Week Away” does. Like other successful faith-based films (such as the recent drama “Fatima,” also currently on Netflix), it unites genuine faith with genuine film quality. It invests in top film talent to present a cast, script, and score that any audience, (Christian or not) can admire, and then uses that very talent to drive home its message. As a result, it can’t help but uplift audiences, and the world could use more movies like it.