"GOD'S NOT DEAD: A LIGHT IN DARKNESS" — 2 stars — David A.R. White, John Corbett, Benjamin A. Onyango, Ted McGinley, Jennifer Taylor; PG (thematic elements including some violence and suggestive material); in general release
There's a good message about forgiveness and humility that emerges by the end of "God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness," but on its way there it continually gets tripped up by hammy execution and story problems.
Michael Mason's "A Light in Darkness" is the third of the God's Not Dead series, and this new installment also features a middle-aged Arkansas reverend named Dave Hill (David A.R. White). In this film, Reverend Dave has to fight a local university that wants to close his church.
The reverend's church has become a source of controversy since, even though it was constructed long before the university came along, it is technically standing on campus land. There are protests about the conflict between church and state, and the conflict between church and science, augmented by expository commentary from talking heads in fictional news broadcasts.
One thing leads to another, and when a vandal accidentally starts a fire at the church, the school sees an opportunity to snuff out the controversy for good. Citing eminent domain, and even though an investigation is still underway, the school's board of trustees — led by the reverend's friend Thomas Ellsworth (Ted McGinley) — fast-tracks the building's demolition, even though repairs would be covered by the church's insurance policy. Reverend Dave enlists his brother Pearce (John Corbett), a civil rights attorney in Chicago, to intervene, and "A Light in Darkness" steers into legal drama territory.
Additional subplots consider the different spiritual angles of the situation: Pearce left the faith long ago, and his reconnection with his brother brings up the pain of their shared bittersweet past. Reverend Dave wrestles with his supposed friendship with Ellsworth and toys with a romantic relationship with Meg (Jennifer Taylor), who runs the local soup kitchen.
Elsewhere, the student responsible for the fire, a young man named Adam (Mike C. Manning), is torn apart by guilt for the act and debates with his girlfriend Keaton (Samantha Boscarino) — who is facing her own crisis of faith — whether to come forward.
By the time viewers get to the finish line, "A Light in Darkness" manages to send a positive message that feels more compromising than you might expect given the "us vs. them" dynamic of the reverend and the two-dimensional villain that is the board of trustees.
But the film still feels best suited to preach to the choir, and audiences on both sides may struggle with shortcomings in execution that plague the production. Rather than let the story stand on its own, Mason continually injects transitional cutaways with the aforementioned talking heads that more or less try to talk the audience through the political dynamics of the story. This frequently makes the film feel more like an op-ed come to life rather than a good movie that shows instead of tells its story.
Corbett's confident and relaxed demeanor is a positive addition to the cast, but too often the twists and turns of the plot feel too far-fetched, no matter how genuine a conflict they may try to address. One object of "A Light in Darkness" is to help its protagonist learn to be more Christlike, but several of the reverend's reactions and behaviors feel pushed for the sake of drama.
Altogether, "God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness" means well, but it needs to drop the editorializing, streamline its story and let its message stand on its own.
"God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness" is rated PG for thematic elements including some violence and suggestive material; running time: 106 minutes.