On the surface, A Closer Walk With Thee might seem like an inspirational Christian flick from the fine folks over at PureFlix – something akin to God’s Not Dead or The Case for Christ. That’s only if you base your opinion of the film on its whimsical title. Anyone who goes in to this film with those expectations might fling themselves off the balcony. Because – while A Closer Walk With Thee is very much about religion (particularly how fundamentalism in any religion is a bad thing) – it says and does things that would make a preacher blush and Baby Jesus himself cry tears of shock and awe. These are good things. In fact, these are great things. Praise Him.
Set in a sketchy part of East Los Angeles, the film follows four Evangelical missionaries as they attempt to spread their unique form of Christianity in an area where they have no place being. Eli (Gregory Shelby) is the leader of the group. His father is the pastor who runs their church, and Eli has all the makings of a leader himself – he’s handsome, commanding, and hopelessly committed to ‘the word’, even at the cost of common sense. Lindsey (Kelsey Boze) is the straight-forward one of the group; Kara (Megan Hensley) is uncertain and constantly scared of her environment; and Jordan (Aj Knight) is sweet, somewhat innocent, and desperately attracted to his friend and word-spreader, Eli. When Jordan is discovered engaging in less than reputable behavior in regards to Eli, the plot takes off and the film goes down dark, dark roads. Yes, there’s a queer element to the film. Deal with it.
A Closer Walk With Thee is like what would happen if someone handed Todd Solondz an exorcism script and said, “Knock yourself out.” While the subject matter is intense and occasionally subversive to the point of insanity, the strong line of dark humor that runs as an undercurrent through the films makes A Closer Walk With Thee one of the most unusual queer films I’ve ever seen. The audience is unsure whether they should laugh, just as they were when comedic shenanigans were happening to Dylan Baker in Happiness? “How do we laugh at the bumbling of a pedophile?” While there aren’t any moments in this film that go quite that perverse, there are certainly moments that stretch one’s ability to keep one’s mouth closed. In the audience I was in, I heard gasps and uncomfortable laughter that eventually turned into a deafening silence that closed the film out. Hallelujah.
Directors John C. Clark and Brie Williams tackle this controversial material with vim, vigor, and a borderline reckless abandon that seems more like calculated genius, at times. It’s a truly low budget affair – one location, few actors – but it never seems like a forced limitation, but rather a choice. This film doesn’t need anything bigger than what it has. And what it has are engaging, delightfully witty, and knowing performances from its four leads, particularly Aj Knight, who has lots of difficult ground to tread as Jordan. Even at the end, when Jordan is doing things that are going to eventually make the MPAA seek professional help, you can’t help but empathize with him. The fact that Clark and Williams can present horrific acts in a way that seem logical, given what we’ve seen, is a real feat and should not be underestimated.
As far as ‘queer films’ go – maybe this fits your definition, maybe it doesn’t. Just as much as this film is about the wrongheadedness of fundamentalism, I also found contentment in its treatment of homosexuality as this demon inside of you that just sits and waits until it springs out like a demon. But it’s only a demon because the people judging it see it that way. Otherwise, it might just be underwear dancing to a Scissor Sisters song (I might have just dated myself). A Closer Walk With Thee will likely not find a home on the LGBTQ circuit because – for some ridiculous reason – violent depictions of the queer community (as depicted on film) are treated with much disdain. Well – guess what – it’s a movie, folks. It begins and ends there.
That said: This film is not for everyone. The best films aren’t. A Closer Walk With Thee deals with difficult subject matter and doesn’t shy away from tackling it in intelligent and subversive ways. Does it cross any lines? I certainly didn’t think so. But, then again, I was giggling like a schoolgirl at some pretty sick stuff. At the end of the day, the film works as a comedy, a drama, a horror film – but best as an examination of the ‘white savior complex’ and how, sometimes, people really should stay away from where they clearly, clearly do not belong. Or, if you’re the directors of this film – heads down, barrel ahead, and just start ramming. That is my favorite way to have a film presented to me. Maybe that’s why A Closer Walk With Thee was so terrific. Amen.