A Story of a Protestant Soul

Masey McLain's amazing performance in I'm Not Ashamed
“A Story of a Protestant Soul”
A Review of I’m Not Ashamed by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

            It must be admitted that I entered this movie with a certain sense of trepidation. Although the independent Christian film movement has made huge strides in the past decade, it still occasionally falters. This is not usually such a problem, but I’m Not Ashamed is a story directly involved in the Columbine massacres. If director Brian Baugh and his team manage to botch the story, it could be written off not simply as bad but disrespectful and exploitative. I’ve never been happier to be so wrong. Here is a magnificent hagiography of Rachel Scott, the first Columbine victim, who achieved fame not only due to her tragic death but the personal journals she left behind. Yet Rachel was not just another “Jesus Freak,” as many of her classmates dismissed. Her theological musings, never meant for publication, are alternatively painful, complicated, profound, difficult, joyful, and heartbreaking; comparisons with Anne Frank and St. Therese of Lisieux are not unwarranted. Her story is an act of true beauty with a film worthy of the tale.
            The first smart move on Baugh’s part was to make the Columbine shooting only a footnote – albeit an important one. Instead, Rachel takes center stage from beginning to end. Like so many of her generation, her parents are divorced. In the opening scenes, her mother – now raising five children without a forseeable income – gathers them together to pray for their needs. “I pray that we will have food to last the month,” she says. At first, Rachel’s faith is rather flakey, more concerned with boys than Heaven. Yet when she starts to take her faith seriously, she experiences more darkness than consolation. As the film progress, her desires don’t change but instead conform to a mature faith that sees the necessity of applying the gospel to all aspects of her life – not just the hour spent in church – which involves redemptive suffering. Rachel is performed to absolute perfection by Masey McLain, partially because she looks and acts like a teenager instead of a mid-twentysomethings passing of as one. It is the first performance all year that can accurately be described as “Oscar-worthy,” though it is likely most Academy members will miss it.
            Shakespeare famously quipped that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Rachel is the last category, a woman whose fate unfortunately is forever intertwined with that historical event – or perhaps not unfortunately. Through all her teenage years, she kept a spiritual journal, detailing her laughs and tears, loves and hates, joy and sorrow. After her death, her parents discovered and published the memoirs. Thus, her writings have become a sort of Protestant Story of a Soul, written only for God but revealed for the benefit of humanity. In one of her last entries she hopes that “these hands will touch millions of hearts.” God granted her courageous wish more than she could have possible imagined.
            The best aspect of I’m Not Ashamed, which was often lacking in independent Christian productions of years past, is a sense of spiritual realism. Unfortunately, frank discussion of anything impure is seen as taboo in many places. Megapastor Joel Osteen has frequently asserted that he “never talks about sin, evil, or Hell.” Rachel, however, is firmly grounded and “smells of the sheep.” She lies, pulls pranks, drinks, goes to parties, and smokes constantly – even after her conversion. Yet, she takes Christ’s commandments seriously, befriending a homeless man living in a place definitely not suitable for WASPs. Later, a small act of kindness from him will save her from suicide. There is a relaxed attitude that allows for original sin and doesn’t demand that people be perfect. This is not an excuse for sin, only a recognition of human nature and the need for grace. There is no need to be dishonest about one’s failings. Christ clearly prefers the Publican to the Pharisee.
            The one thing Ashamed had to get right was the events of April 20th, 1999. The audience is introduced to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold early on, but the reveal of their intentions is thankfully limited to only a handful of short scenes. They knew Rachel and were present when she made a class presentation on her faith, but their paths rarely crossed prior to the events – though she does manage to help a friend of theirs who might otherwise have joined them. The social and psychological reasons behind their terrorism is implied, but the blame is squarely on them. Ultimately, it was their decision and not an act of mental illness or helplessness. In many ways, Rachel is like them – ostracized and mocked for her philosophy and choices – but unlike them chooses to respond with love and forgiveness. Her death is true to the events – quick, sudden, and without time to process the magnitude of what is occurring. After shooting her multiple times, Eric points his pistol at her temple and asks her if she still believes in God. Her witness echoes St. Stephen – assertive but without judgment or pride: “You know that I do.”
            I’m Not Ashamed is one of just three mainstream Christian productions in theaters currently – the others being Priceless and Voiceless. While few are as good as this, all of them have improved in quality over the past decade and almost all will turn a good profit. While the politics of the country seems set on self-destruction and Hollywood on milking the dry well of reboots and sequels, Christian cinema is having a Renaissance – with distribution company Pure Flix (God’s Not Dead, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise) one of its chief protagonists. Finally, there is Christian filmmaking worthy of the calipher of stories it tells. Hopefully, it is a trend that will only grow.