A friend of mine invited me to a screening of Play the Flute. I was a bit surprised in that, for some reason, I thought I was going to see Unplanned, so I’m certain that my confusion in that the main characters and plot points of that movie weren’t present, which meant that I kept waiting for that part of the movie to start, which obviously didn’t happen. I think that movie could have solved that problem with a title card at the beginning, which it did not have.
So, spoilers ahead. Also, go ahead and read my Fireproof review if you haven’t already. Also, I’m really annoyed because I had plenty of this written out, and then the WordPress app on my phone decided to have a fit and not actually save what I’d written.
I’ll start by giving credit where it’s due – the tech people involved in producing this film were on point. Camera angles were fantastic, lighting was on point, hair and makeup were done well, sound mixing was flawless, and location shoots were done with consistency and efficacy. The actors and actresses shouldn’t hold their breath for an Oscar, but while the script they had to deal with had massive issues, the cast was pretty well chosen and effective in their delivery. Props to all the people who put in so much hard work into this film.
The movie opens with Matthew 11:16-17, in the King James version of the Bible. That set the tone for a few themes, just none of the ones it was going for. I’m hoping you can agree with me that the language used in the King James version of the Bible isn’t exactly what I’d call ‘readily accessible’ to a modern viewer. I’m not trying to start a “which-version-is-best” debate, but the language used simply isn’t the sort of vernacular which is self-evident to a contemporary audience. The King James version of the Bible is used in exclusivity throughout the movie. I don’t intrinsically mind that, but in doing so, the audience for the film is likely to be an audience of Christians, primarily. Even that, I don’t have a problem with, except that they do the whole direct gospel message in the film, which assumes an unsaved audience. Targeting to a demographic is one thing, but these two things together seem to show a conflict of intent…one which was likely lost on the writers.
80% of Play the Flute takes place in a church setting. A new(ish) pastor comes in to be a youth director at an existing church with an existing youth group, and is shocked – SHOCKED – that a group of 14-18-year-olds aren’t inherently, independently motivated to read the Bible and live their lives according to the principles of the Word of God. He’s shocked – SHOCKED – that those individuals are more concerned with social acceptance and sports, making it difficult for me to believe that he’s ever met an adolescent in a church setting. Now, I’m not an unforgiving person so I do understand that the kids are direct and open about it for the sake of storytelling, but if they were going for realism those kids would have been able to tell the story of Joseph basically-verbatim, and would have been able to give a moving testimony about how much they love God while still ‘doing the bad things’ the other six days of the week. Oh, also, at no point in this movie are any of the kids romantically attracted to anyone else? None of those entanglements are involved? The story would have been much better with one of those, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but the fact that the whole movies goes by with a group of hormonal teenagers never once expressing a desire to even ask another one out on a date is patently unrealistic. While I’m at it, husband-and-wife duo don’t even kiss each other hello or goodbye, let alone express any sexual desire for each other. They are married, movie! If you’re going to take screen time to warn against sex outside of marriage, at least imply there’s sex in marriage!
The youth pastor, along with his senior pastor, throws shade at the churches that talk about numbers and events and programs. I agree with the fact that a church that uses fun events as a replacement to Bible study has issues, for the very reasons they specify. However, that’s like saying that since knives can be used to harm that they shouldn’t be used at all, and the movie itself contradicts this. The youth group goes on their one-day retreat (an event), they have fun, and that event creates an opportunity for the pastor and his wife to impart Godly wisdom into the students with whom they are entrusted. Our protagonist pastor has less success building relationships with the young people and imparting Godly principles to them in a classroom setting than he has at an event or program? I’m shocked – SHOCKED! That’s just not how effective youth ministry works. Yes, a classroom setting is common and it absolutely has its place, but as a rule relationships in youth ministry simply aren’t built that way.
One other thing they did was to go to a cemetery, and the pastor talks about how life is short and fleeting, and gives the whole “where will you be for eternity” thing…y’know, because the perfect way to encourage kids who don’t meaningfully know God to follow Him is to say that the options are to spend eternity with Him…or not. This is a theological rabbit hole of its own, but I’ll say this: the behavioral shifts in the characters are a result of that relationship developing in the natural. How does that work? The pitch is basically a “fire insurance Christianity” sort of thing, but the results are temporal in nature? One of the kids call him out on it, and I was thinking to myself, “that kid would be excellent at CinemaSins”. Even if I didn’t go down that theological rabbit hole, what was his plan? Drive for 20 minutes each way with all the kids in the van, during the day (so, Sunday?) to spend five minutes in a cemetery hearing a story about a turbulent flight and then turn around and go home? That’s a poorly planned Sunday School field trip.
Not a single character has a home life that’s at all expounded upon; every parent seems to just assume the church will handle the spiritual upbringing of their children. We either don’t see parents, or we see very one-note parents who make me wonder about the back stories we spend so much time not-seeing. Natalie’s aunt has four scenes – twice where she laments her getting made fun of (but never encourages her to go to another youth group?), once where she gives the “Moses had a stutter too” speech, and once where she’s around for the apology. Shannon’s mom lets her run the show and the absentee dad is also only discussed in throwaway dialog; basically she’s there to show Shannon’s wealthy background. Marcie’s mom is there thrice – once to say she’s not a fan of Shannon (never explaining why or trying to encourage her daughter to be discerning, just ‘because I said so’), once to exposit the flag metaphor (and assume her daughter was going to make that sort of a choice because her mom guilted her into doing it), and once to show that she’s happy with Marcie’s change. I’m not saying this movie needed more runtime, but I am saying that there’s plenty of lost opportunity here and it’s in conflict with the pastor’s taking responsibility for the choices the students make.
As the pastor continues trying to use Bible-as-a-textbook methods to reach the kids (all of whom have perfect weekly attendance?), eventually, each of them have a shift in their heart to stop doing the bad thing they did before, and apologize for it. Now, to be fair, I do at least give credit to the fact that these changes are primarily done at an individual basis and are the result of an overarching shift for the duration of the movie, and it’s not necessarily any of them reciting a particular prayer publicly, so I was at least pleasantly surprised about that (though the white flag thing was a bit heavy handed). Even so, the “Play the Flute” title refers back to the verse in Matthew, which essentially stated that “you’re either playing the flute, or the flute is playing for you”. The variant I grew up with was, “you’re either a missionary or a mission field”. That’s fine, but it still leaves a whole lot of questions as to why the kids had their change of heart. The verse, restructured for the context of the movie, amounts to guilting the kids into doing the right thing. One by one, each of them stops doing a thing, and we the audience are supposed to be proud of them. I mean, to take that to its logical conclusion, do we then look at the external actions and say “the end justifies the means”? Yes, film limits the ability to show a change of heart rather than a change of action, but literally no adult has a one-on-one conversation with any kid about where their heart really is, leaving plenty of room for the ending to be a group of moral atheists. Really, each of the characters were problematic in one way or another.
Natalie’s parents died tragically…but it’s addressed one time a throwaway line of dialog. Talk about a missed opportunity – how is that not the perfect setup for a crisis of faith? Let Natalie scream at the pastor, “G-gg-God couldn’t ss-sss-stop my parents from-mm-m dying, He could at l-ll-llleast get rid of this s-ss-stupid ss-ssTUTTER!!”. She would be someone who was doing all the things she was supposed to be doing, but when it really came down to it, she would have had a real internal struggle that would have been incredibly to see unfold. But no, she just has to be the one-note, perfect church girl from start to finish with no growth or development. Her moment of bravery isn’t a matter of bravery at all; telling Marcie what she thought didn’t cost her anything, or have the threat of doing so.
Squirrel admits his fraudulent timeclock punching, but coerces his coworker friend into doing the same. This is another missed opportunity. Let Squirrel do it alone and get fired, while his friend keeps his job. Let his friend ask why he admitted it and took the heat. The ensuing discussion could involve Squirrel saying he did the right thing even though it cost something, and that he was trusting in God to provide for him. The friend could see this, and then go to the boss and admit he was doing it as well, and go to bat to get Squirrel rehired. This would show how Squirrel’s influenced caused his friend to make his own choice, and even allow an opportunity for Squirrel to share the Lord…but instead the scene uses force and Squirrel gives an ultimatum to someone who doesn’t share his commitment, and we’re okay with that?
Teddy…stops making fun of Natalie. Great, but he’s gotten less positive reinforcement from everyone over time so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. It didn’t take much for Natalie to end up being more receptive to Teddy at the same time Shannon pushed him away, so Teddy just switched allies. What would have been far better would have been for Teddy to have had a crush on Shannon and having started the movie with Teddy doing Shannon’s bidding to try and win her affection, with Teddy’s big moment being him telling Shannon off, realizing he had no shot with her as a result, and then having to reconcile with a Natalie who is still incredibly guarded and ends the movie willing to be civil with him at best.
Marcie is Shannon’s patsy, but for no defined reason. Throughout the movie there is no indication that Shannon has any leverage on Marcie, they don’t really seem to do anything fun together, and Marcie seems to lack any other friends while also shown as being able to just start being friends with Teddy and Squirrel on the spot. Marcie’s shift away from Shannon was supposed to be her big deal, but Shannon’s popularity was waning and she already had new friends as a result, so it wasn’t a sacrifice by the time Marcie decided to take her stand.
Then there’s Shannon, the movie’s attempt to have a Regina George character, except she lacked her nuanced moments, charisma, sex appeal, or social authority. A clawless cat if there ever was one. What did she spend her massive allowance on? We never see. Why did Marcie have loyalty to her, but nobody else does? We aren’t told. Why do her parents tolerate her disrespect but also incentivize her going to church? It’s unclear. Shannon put Vaseline on a chair. Regina called the parents of her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s parents and pretended to be Planned Parenthood, breaking up their relationship and making the girl a social pariah. Shannon is what happens when writers of Christian movies try to involve conflict while also trying to avoid showing a sinful thing in a movie – we end up with a character whose salt has lost its saltiness.
Let’s discuss Shannon’s false accusation. We, the audience, know nothing happened…but nobody else does. The #metoo and #believeher movements have their problems on both sides, but on what basis does the whole youth group take the pastor’s side? We the audience know nothing happened, but they don’t. Are they defending him simply because “he would never do such a thing?” That’s the root of the issue at hand, but how come literally nobody even attempts to consider if Shannon was right? They went after Shannon for information but nobody tried to put the pastor through the ringer? When they tricked Shannon into confessing, how come none of them used their smartphones to get an audio or video recording of her saying it so they could prove it to the people in charge? Why not have a text message exchange so they could use screenshots as evidence of the lie to show to the senior pastor and Shannon’s mom? Also, the church across town was perfectly fine having him despite knowing the circumstances and controversy around his departure?
It would have been far more interesting if they showed Shannon walking out the door behind everyone else, then walking back in the room and having the screen fade to black with the audience never seeing what exactly happened. If I wanted to double down, it would have been particularly interesting to do a sort of flashback scene regarding both accounts of the story, one from the pastor where the apology happens, and another from Shannon’s point of view where she successfully seduces him, leaving the reader to figure to spend a little time debating who to believe…but of course, it would have been much more controversial, and if there’s one thing this movie can’t handle, it’s giving the audience something to think about….and also, it wouldn’t have driven the plot because then there would be a genuine cause for a schism.
I’ll close by talking about the actual dialog itself. The script had so many smaller issues with how the characters talked to each other. People walk into the room to have a discussion, they begin with some thoroughly mundane thing that nobody cares about, and then they change topics to the real thing worth discussing. Does Marcie’s mother always announce when she’s got laundry for her? Did the script really need three lines of dialog between the pastor and his wife about the logistics of returning the shirt? Did Squirrel and his coworker always have to reiterate the plan in an expository manner immediately before they carried it out? So much cringey dialog was present throughout the movie. Virtually every character did it…except, ironically, the one with the stutter. The Moses parallel was obvious it was coming the moment the stutter was introduced, the Joseph foreshadowing was heavy handed, and the theme verse only meaningfully made sense at the end which made it clear they were chosen for plot purposes. I almost have an objection to the Bible being used purely to add literary conventions to such a poorly written script. It was obvious the car wash at the end was coming the moment there was a discussion about the bet being one-sided. Beth trying to get the girls to interact more nicely together “because she said so” demonstrated how out of touch the writers were with how kids actually interact. Even as adults, did nobody think about how they would feel if someone was suddenly nice to them because an authority figure coerced them? There were just so many examples of poorly constructed dialog and annoyingly worded exposition that it made me wish they just started quoting the King James Bible again.
In conclusion, I simply couldn’t conjure up any grace for this movie. If it was 1999, maybe…but for all its other flaws, 1999’s Left Behind Movie benefited from Jerry B. Jenkins’ excellent source material, making it a layup to have a script written without cringe-inducing dialog. I had issues with God’s Not Dead, but even those script writers seemed to have been involved in a conversation at some point. Play the Flute was about an oblivious pastor, a paint-by-numbers youth group that failed miserably at character development, and a goal that only makes sense to a church audience while also being called an “evangelical tool” by a group of people who had no concept of how people interact in real life.
Sorry, 3/10 would not recommend to anyone…and those three points all go to the production crew.
Edits 4/17/2019 – some rewording for readability and clarity.