Review: Small Group — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Small Group explores the kinds of crosstalk that can build bridges among people of all faiths — or no faith at all.

A still from Small Group

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Small Group

⭐⭐⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute

Stars: Sterling Hurst, Emily Dunlop, Matt Chastain

Writer/Director: Matt Chastain

In Select Theaters and on Most Streaming Services

One of the reasons faith-based movies don’t ordinarily clean up at the box office is because the faithful too seldom see themselves accurately represented in them — and also because to the uninitiated, believers in these movies seem kind of, well, weird.

Those opposing perceptions are attacked head-on in Small Group, a good-natured faith-based comedy that explores the tentative dance Americans choreograph every day as the faithful and faithless try to find common ground without sacrificing their core beliefs — or lack thereof.

Sterling Hurst stars as Scott, a documentary filmmaker who’s been hired by a sleazy film producer (Robert Riechel Jr.) to make a movie that rips the cloak of hypocrisy from a community of Atlanta Christians, revealing them to be the fakers he’s convinced they are. A generally good-natured agnostic with no religious axe to grind, Scott at first resists. But a job is a job, so he dons a pair of Google Glass-like camera/eyeglasses and embeds himself in the fellowship, recording every interaction along the way.

The film merrily skirts the probability that this sort of Candid Camera scam would most likely land someone in jail. But Hurst is such an appealing actor, reminiscent of Daniel Stern in his goofily clueless Home Alone days, that we immediately give his character the benefit of the doubt. Along for the ride is Scott’s wife Mary (Emily Dunlop of TV’s Doom Patrol), trying to be supportive but uneasy about making “friends” with the subjects of her hubby’s guerrilla documentary.

Small Group wrings its laughs — and a few thoughtful moments — from the couple’s fish-in-baptismal-water experiences. An uncomfortable Sunday service seems to them more like a rock concert than a worship event, and they’re distressed when their brand-new red letter Bible proves no match for the digital Scriptures their pew mates wield on their smart phones.

Of course, once they’re enlisted into a small group of church members, the couple soon discover this is not the flock of weirdos they’d expected. And once Scott’s ruse is inevitably discovered, his enraged subjects have to decide whether or not there’s a place in their hearts for unbelieving — and occasionally duplicitous — outsiders.

It’s all as light as an Easter morning balloon launch — until the film takes an unexpectedly dramatic, almost documentarian turn when Scott is invited to accompany the men folk on a mission trip to Guatemala City. There, writer/director Matt Chastain (who also plays one of the small group guys) turns his camera on the real-life squalor of the city’s slums — and the work of Engadi Ministries, a program that tries to save young men from hurling themselves into the dead-end violence of local street gangs. Through Scott’s eyes, we meet several of these youngsters — their bodies covered with tattoos, their eyes ablaze with suspicion and anger — playing themselves with riveting intensity.

It’s quite a transition, admirably pulled off by first-time director Chastain, who momentarily sheds the friendly confines of an off-kilter Sunday School comedy to dip his toes into a kind of street-smart cinematic realism that owes more to Rossellini’s Rome: Open City than to Heaven Is for Real.

Too often, faith-based movies get written off as second-class cinematic citizens. But the genre has given us some of Martin Scorsese’s most thoughtful work (The Last Temptation of Christ; Silence), more than a few Best Picture Oscar Winners (Chariots of Fire and A Man for All Seasons among them), and even a classic comedy (Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty). Small Group doesn’t quite breathe that same rarified air, yet it succeeds in using film to explore the kinds of crosstalk that can build bridges among people of all faiths — or no faith at all.

Featured image: Still from Small Group (Limesoda Films)

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