“Does your mother look like a gorilla?” Evan (Chandler Macocha) demands of one of his fellow college students. “Do your grandmother look like an ape? WHO IN YOUR FAMILY IS THE MONKEY!?”
Normally, you might think that Evan sounds like a jerk but, since he is a character in the 2014 film A Matter of Faith, he’s presented as being a hero. No one can come up with anything to say when he demands to know why no one in their family looks like a gorilla. Because Evan is apparently the first person to ever use the “Why don’t humans look more like apes?” argument, he wins every theological debate that he gets involved with.
A Matter of Faith is all about a theological debate. Professor Kamen (Harry Anderson) is a popular college biology professor who teaches that evolution is the only possible way that life could have been created. He even brings a rubber chicken to class to illustrate that the egg came before the children. However, one of his students, Rachel Whitaker (Jordan Trovillion), has always been taught that the chicken came first because God created the chicken. When Rachel’s father, Stephen (Jay Pickett), discovers what Kamen has been teaching and that Rachel hasn’t even opened her Bible since going off to college, he heads down to the campus. When Stephen objects to what Kamen teaches, Kamen challenges Stephen to a debate. Stephen agrees, though you have to wonder why a college would sponsor a debate between a professor and some random guy that no one has ever heard of before. It would be one thing if Stephen were an activist with a huge following. But really, Stephen is just a guy who no scientist background and stepped into a professor’s office and was challenged to campus date. Is it even ethical for Kamen to debate the father of one of his students like this?
Soon, the Evolution vs. Creationism debate is the hottest ticket on campus, because apparently it’s a very boring campus. Everyone is planning on attending! Rachel wishes her father would just drop out while Evan, who works for the school newspaper, tries to help Stephen prepare. Evan discovers that the college’s former biology professor, Joseph Portland (Clarence Gildyard, Jr.), lost his job when he refused to each the theory of evolution as established fact. In fact, Kamen was the one who got Portland fired. Can Stephen convince Portland to set aside his bitterness and help him win the debate? And can Evan help Rachel see that her jock boyfriend, Tyler (Barrett Carnahan), is a no-good frat boy who doesn’t even go to church? And will Rachel ever develop a personality beyond sitting in her dorm room and studying?
Yes, this is a Christiano Brothers production, with all of the awkward dialogue and heavy-handed sermonizing that one would normally expect. Rich and Dave Christiano wrote the script while Rich directed. The debate aspect of the film will undoubtedly remind many viewers of God’s Not Dead, though the film deserves some credit for not resorting to the old trope of having Professor Kamen be a former believer who became an atheist due to family tragedy. That said, the debate itself is a bit of let down as neither side makes much of a case for itself. When Kamen uses Freud to dismiss the existence of God, Portland shouts out, “Freud was wrong!” and the stunned gasp from the audience made me laugh out loud.
The actors playing the college students are all fairly boring. Watching the film, one wonders when the last time was that the Christianos ever talked to anyone under the age of 40. Not surprisingly, the best performances in the film come from Harry Anderson and Clarence Gilyard, Jr. Anderson, in particular, deserves a lot of credit for bringing some nuance to the role that was probably not present in the script. (Sadly, this was his final acting role. He died four years later.) Gilyard, as well, has a good moment towards the end of the film when Portland apologizes for his previous refusal to only teach creationism, saying that the job of the college is not to push either creationism or evolution but to allow both sides to be heard. That’s not a sentiment that you would necessarily expect to hear in a Christiano film.
That said, once you get past Anderson and Gilyard, you’ve still got Evan demanding to know if anyone has a monkey in their immediate family and one gets the feeling that, despite all of the talk of letting both sides be heard, the film has more sympathy for Evan’s abrasiveness than Portland’s fair-mindedness. As well, it’s hard not to feel that, as a character, Rachel is never really allowed to make up her own mind about anything. At first, she looks up to Kamen. Eventually, she looks up to her Dad. At first, she wants to spend all of her non-studying time with Tyler. By the end of the film, she’s falling in love with Evan. In the end, Rachel’s decision is never about what she believes but instead about which man she’s going to follow. For Rachel, it’s less a matter of faith and a more a matter of, “Hey, he’s cute!”
In the end, when I think about this film, I’ll probably think less about the debate and mostly just remember Harry Anderson and the rubber chicken.