Film Review - Milltown Pride

 

by David Oestreich

The truest moment of human emotion in Milltown Pride comes when Will Wright (Thomas Sneed), a young man from the more genteel side of his North Carolina town, thoughtlessly uses the discriminatory term “lint-head” in a conversation with his friend Chick (Ben Ascher), a denizen of the textile-mill workers’ village. In that moment, the fabric of goodwill woven between them through years of setting aside class differences to share their mutual love of baseball unravels to a very thin and tense thread.

Unfortunately, instead of thoughtfully exploring the potentially rich subject of social tensions between the privileged and the disenfranchised in the 1920s Carolina mill culture (much less demonstrating how the power of the gospel addresses those issues), Bob Jones University’s Unusual Films has, in Milltown Pride, opted to produce a “feel-good summer movie” with a lot of Christian trappings.

The film’s protagonist has just left home and the overbearing authority of his father (played by producer Darren Lawson) to pursue his dream of being a professional baseball player. He hopes to accomplish this by making the local mill team and playing well enough there to catch the eye of a minor league scout. However, in order to play on the mill team, he has to actually work at the mill—something his bigoted, classist father would not tolerate. At the mill, Will meets and pursues the affections of Ginnie Douglas (Becca Kaser), a young lady who works in the office and happens to be the daughter of the man who runs the mill. Her father, in turn, happens to be a guru to would-be baseball sluggers.

But, while seemingly on the fast-track to realizing his dearest hopes, Will does face significant obstacles. One is his teammate Pike (Logan Phillips), a brooding malcontent who has disliked Will from the day they first met as kids in the sandlot. When Will’s baseball prowess earns him the instant admiration of the other players and favorite-son status with the coach, Pike attempts to undermine Will’s popularity and ability in any way he can.

The larger obstacle Will encounters, however, is his own lack of self-control. Not long after he arrives in the mill village, he is sneaking off after practice to the village’s makeshift speakeasy for a sip of moonshine. Out from under the authority of his parents, his ambivalence towards God surfaces, and he quickly loses control of his drinking, his athletic performance and his relationship with Ginnie.

Milltown Pride does do some things right. I should make clear that it would be unfair to expect too much from any studio that has not made a feature length film in more than a decade, much less a studio operated by a fundamentalist Bible college drawing primarily from the talent pool of its faculty and student body. Any review must take these limitations into account.

Accepting these terms, then, the performances by the actors are, for the most part, capable. In fact, the rather antic Billy Sunday—who might easily be overplayed—is given a wisely tempered treatment by David Burke (who also wrote the screenplay). Boyishly rambunctious Ascher is well-cast as Chick, and Logan Phillips’ Pike (probably the script’s most fully realized character) maintains an unreasonable bitterness throughout the film.

I was fairly amazed by the visual world the filmmakers were able to create on what was likely a shoe-string budget compared to that of most big-screen productions. While the cinematography isn’t exceptional, the locations and sets were selected and constructed well enough that I had absolutely no problem believing I was looking back into the prohibition-era South.

Director Tim Rogers also makes some interesting use the film medium’s unique storytelling capabilities. When young Will is punished by being grounded from baseball for a week, he takes to swinging a slat at a knot he has tied in a rope hung from a tree. His patient persistence at this alternate form of practice is revealed when, at the end of the week, his grounding is lifted and he runs off to play. Here the camera’s plane of focus switches from the young boy sprinting away to enjoy his restored freedom to the now terribly frayed knot that has been hanging unrecognizably blurred in the foreground.

Later, when Will leaves home after an argument with his father, he is seen trekking by moonlight across the railroad trestle towards the mill workers’ settlement. This symbolic depiction of abandoning the authority of both God and parent is neatly echoed and repurposed just before the film’s climax when Will, in shining daylight now, again crosses the river desiring to correct at least some of his wrongs.

Finally, the well-scored montage scenes of team training and play are easily the most technically excellent in the film (due perhaps to the fact that most of Unusual Films’ projects are probably short and promotional in nature).

Despite these positives, however, the film cannot overcome its failings, most of which stem from the script.

The director and camera crew present an authentic visual landscape. The script; however, offers precious few real characters to populate it. For instance, we are offered no reason for Will to be drawn to Ginnie other than she’s a girl and she’s there. They go on a series of dates including a band concert and a revival meeting, yet none of the events or dialogue reveals the forging of any true emotional or spiritual bond. The audience is left to write the romance off as merely an expected requirement of a movie story, leaving them with little chance to be truly emotionally invested in the characters.

In fact, most of the characters in Pride—Will’s angry, snobbish father, the team’s volatile yet good-natured coach, Chick’s little brother (who, like Dickens’ Nell, functions as a sympathy prompt)—are no more than cogs in the story’s wheel, conveying the narrative to a predetermined conclusion.

The proof of this assertion is the film’s denouement. In the final five minutes, Will is reconciled to his coach, his teammates and his parents, not because of any genuine growth in those characters themselves, but because (or in order that) Will hits the home run at the crucial moment. Are the filmmakers asking us to believe that Will’s father, upon attending exactly one of his son’s games and seeing him knock it out of the park, is somehow convinced that his lifelong low regard for the lint-head community might be ill-founded?

This lack of character dimension necessarily impacts the film’s emotional landscape—the sum of viewing experience created by joining script, performance, and photography. Put another way, Pride fails to provide an honest portrayal of early 20th century Carolina Mill culture or, ultimately, of humanity. The problem is perhaps best illustrated by the female characters in the film. With the exception of a token mill-town rowdy, every woman in this movie is the stereotypical southern sweetheart. Similarly, the mill workers are generally mild and content. But even a cursory investigation of that culture reveals this portrayal to be false.

Mill workers and their families were frequently desperate and oppressed people who often fit nowhere else in society. Many mill companies took advantage of being “the only game in town,” taking ownership of the boarding houses and general stores so that most, if not all, the money workers earned went directly back to the company, funding next week’s payroll.

In light of this history, Pride’s portrayal of Will’s boardinghouse marm as a rocking-chair-grandmother type, or Chick’s mother as comically generous with what would have been precious nourishment for her family, is inaccurate. More importantly, such a portrayal is a missed opportunity to highlight both the tragic affects of sin on culture, as well as the fact that the way of the transgressor is hard. Unlike the prodigal son, Will moves from one comfortable situation to a different comfortable situation, the latter complete with a cushy job, a girlfriend and the unfettered pursuit of baseball!

Which brings us to Milltown Pride’s worst weakness—an incomplete portrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one thing to use characters as a means to a narrative end. It is quite another to so use the gospel. But when the outcome of Will’s conversion is not only the erasure of nearly all his personal problems but a clear path to realizing his goal of playing professional sports, there is but one thing for a viewer to think: trust Jesus, and all your wildest dreams will come true.

Not only is Pride’s focus on temporal results to conversion misleading, but its path to that conversion is unclear. Billy Sunday’s message seems to present salvation as no more than a better alternative to one’s sinful ways (which the film similarly reduces to mere socially unacceptable behaviors) rather than the only way to be reconciled to a holy and just God, whom to know is life eternal.

Pride’s gospel also seems to border on “easy believism.” Witness the following (paraphrased and condensed) dialogue:

Chick: Let’s pray for my brother to recover from his injury right now.

Will: But if I regard sin in my heart, the Lord won’t hear me. You don’t know your Bible as well as I do.

Chick: Then get rid of the sin! … Ask God to forgive you. That’s all there is to becoming a Christian.

No mention of the deity of Christ. No clear understanding of substitutionary atonement. No mention of the resurrection. Just ask God to forgive you.

I do not demand that any work of Christian art, popular or otherwise, be overtly spiritual, much less that it completely and clearly articulate the gospel. But the makers of Milltown Pride have stated their desire to use movies to “get a [Christian] message out” and “witness to the lost.” Beyond this express concern is the general expectation that the arts should enlarge one’s comprehension of the human condition. This film accomplishes neither.

[node:bio/davido body]

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

...are famously hard to please. David doesn't claim to be a "film critic," but I'd say he's got the rhythm down!
This is one of those times when I wish we had another review to post along side to give folks a wider variety of perspectives to consider. But only one has been submitted (so far... )

I appreciate David's taking the time.

I have not seen Milltown Pride, but I think the "Bojo Movie" is really a genre all it's own. I'd like to know how MP compares to past productions and what that suggests about the direction their movie efforts are headed. The closest thing to this kind of film in the broader marketplace is probably the evangelism films of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (i.e., The Climb), and--to a lesser degree--films like Fireproof, Facing the Giants, etc.

In all flicks of the type that I've seen, the guy loves the gal just because she's there, available and good looking... and interested. (This is probably actually a pretty realistic portrayal of the human condition, come to think of it... the male human condition, anyway. )

If I remember right, these films also have a tradition of being less than crystal in laying out the gospel. I'm not really sure how I feel about that. It's hard to be true to the art form and set up a really thorough "teaching the gospel" scene that doesn't look extremely contrived. Christian novels often suffer from this problem as well.

I also suspect that if MP's main character had really experienced the "way of the transgressor is hard," somebody would point out that this is a pretty tired Christian movie cliche. Even in Scripture, the "hard" part of the way of the transgressor sometimes doesn't come to him until after this life rather than in this life and after.
Personally, I think I might find it refreshing to see a Christian film in which the "transgressor" just has more and more and more fun (Psalm 73 style) until--wham! He gets hit with 9,000 volt conviction of sin and the need for repentance--completely out of nowhere.
But I'm not sure that would be good story telling... and God does (usually?) use a bit of disaster as part of the drawing process (Acts 16:30-31, for example). It sounds like Milltown aims to go somewhere in the middle with that part of the story.

A few more or less random thoughts.

DavidO's picture

I will say I've only seen one other Unusual film, Sheffey, which I remember being "better". But I was 12 or 13 at the time; hard to guess what my opinion would be now. I'd really like to see Wine of Morning because that book really captivated me. Again, though, I was 14 when I read it.

And I agree, per Psalm 73, sometimes the way of the transgressor is cushy, but the world around him is still fallen.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Quote:
I should make clear that it would be unfair to expect too much from any studio that has not made a feature length film in more than a decade, much less a studio operated by a fundamentalist Bible college drawing primarily from the talent pool of its faculty and student body. Any review must take these limitations into account.

Hollywood is teaming with 'professional' actors and bazillion dollar budgets, and they are seldom able to put out more than tired, cliched tripe. So if some amateurs manage to make something decent on a shoestring, they should feed good about it.

I agree that a problem with inspirational movies and fiction is conveying Biblical truth and sincere conversions organically. Many times it seems that the story is flowing... flowing...flowing... okay- gotta' insert a contrived, spiritually contemplative scene right about... here. Is that how Christians live their lives? Why doesn't Biblical principle permeate their conduct and decision making, instead of looking more like a Band-Aid when someone gets into a scrape?

I think the Kendrick brothers have done a good job with their film efforts. Some complain that all plot points are tied up too neatly and the ending is just too happy, but that criticism could apply to any number of movies starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, KWIM?

We'll watch MP when it hits our library system.

rogercarlson's picture

Aaron,

I have seen all of the of the BJ films. I had high expectations of this one. I was pretty disappointed. I thought that the Printing far surpassed this one. Some of David's points are overstated. But he does make some valid points as well.

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

GregH's picture

David, just wanted to say that your review is outstanding and insightful. I hope people will recognize that even if they choose to disagree with you.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

David,
I have seen Wine of Morning... or at least most of it. My kids have enjoyed it (and more than "enjoyed"... they talked about parts of it for some time. I think much of what bugs adults in films is of no consequence at all to younger viewers.). I'm pretty confident you'd say everything that came after it has been "better."

About characters and motivations: this is a big pet peeve of mine. Though it's true that few movies are "character driven," many of them have realistic, engaging and motivated characters. But in movie reviews by pros, the most consistent complaint by far is that the characters do not seem to be adequately developed, motivated and "true." This is apparently most difficult part of any work of fiction.

DavidO's picture

I think WoM, at least the book, was aimed at a youth/young adult demographic. I really should get a copy or two (used are pretty cheap on Amazon) and see if it's as good as I remember, then assign it to my kids.

Gerry Carlson's picture

I bought the MP DVD and was mildly disappointed. Dave has brought substance to my inner grumblings and feelings. It was a feel good story that lacked a punch -- IMO -- both spiritually and artistically.

Dave, I didn't realize that you have become a film critic, but keep it up! I am not surprised because I remember you as an artistically sensitive guy who had many interests and did a lots of varied things.

Gerry Carlson

Gerry Carlson

Ron Bean's picture

Quote:
The proof of this assertion is the film’s denouement. In the final five minutes, Will is reconciled to his coach, his teammates and his parents, not because of any genuine growth in those characters themselves, but because (or in order that) Will hits the home run at the crucial moment. Are the filmmakers asking us to believe that Will’s father, upon attending exactly one of his son’s games and seeing him knock it out of the park, is somehow convinced that his lifelong low regard for the lint-head community might be ill-founded?

As a confessed baseball fan, I was stunned at the deus ex machina moment in the film's climax. When he came in as a pinch runner in the top of the last inning he assumes that spot in the batting order, meaning that there's no way he can get an at-bat in the bottom of the inning. Will batted out of order and should have been called out for breaking the rules!

I really wanted MTP to be a Fireproof or Facing the Giants event for Unusual Films. Maybe next time.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Ron Bean wrote:
When he came in as a pinch runner in the top of the last inning he assumes that spot in the batting order, meaning that there's no way he can get an at-bat in the bottom of the inning. Will batted out of order and should have been called out for breaking the rules!

Was his team hitting in both the top and the bottom of the same inning???

Reminds me of grade school softball when a kid pushed ahead of me to bat with two outs in the bottom of the last. I was too naive at the moment to realize what he was doing -- just thought he was dumb. I didn't get really mad until I got home :cry:

Church Ministries Representative for the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry

Ron Bean's picture

Paul J. Scharf wrote:
Ron Bean wrote:
When he came in as a pinch runner in the top of the last inning he assumes that spot in the batting order, meaning that there's no way he can get an at-bat in the bottom of the inning. Will batted out of order and should have been called out for breaking the rules!

Was his team hitting in both the top and the bottom of the same inning???

Reminds me of grade school softball when a kid pushed ahead of me to bat with two outs in the bottom of the last. I was too naive at the moment to realize what he was doing -- just thought he was dumb. I didn't get really mad until I got home :cry:


Oops. my bad.

Okay, here's the play by play. (I may be off a number or two.)
Will goes in as a substitute for an injures player in the last inning. The player he goes in for has just been at bat. The coach says words to the effect that "at least you won't get to bat." (At this point my baseball mind is thinking that it's going to take extra innings for Will to be the hero.) Surprise! No extra innings needed. Bottom of the ninth, two men on and Will jumps several places in the batting order to get an at bat and hit the game winning home run.

I like the authentic feel of the film - no numbers on the uniforms, old style gloves and bases - but the batting order gaffe ruined the story line for me.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

L Strickler's picture

I wondered who would be brave enough to do this review.

As a loyal BJU graduate, the phrase "BJ bubble" always disturbed me. But that is exactly what came to mind when I the film began. I am a northerner, but I know how older genteel people talked in South Carolina. While my husband was in college, we rented a four room house in an old mill town, so I know how the descendants of the mill workers live and talk too. If the script and actors could not even make that distinction in accent, language and style, the studio picked the wrong place and time in which to set their story. There certainly wasn't enough red dirt and smoke in the scenes. The children in the movie are kids of northerners growing up in the BJ bubble who may have never talked to a real person of the "class" they were supposed to be portraying. The adults were about as bad. The acting was stiff. Say our lines, now run. File out quietly after we just won a game. Maybe the actors were afraid of demerits if they got too rowdy.

And just for a pet peeve - northerners never wore their long johns in the summer let alone someone in steamy South Carolina. Leave out the swimming since we don't want to see naked (nekid) kids.

Camera crew did a great job as David mentioned. I agree with his theological points as well.
Knowing the quality of past films, I had hoped to use the DVD as an evangelistic tool among my neighbors, but that is unlikely.

To paraphrase or plagarize Jane Austin, "I hate to be hard on anyone of our (stripe), but there it is."

L Strickler

Jay's picture

Does anyone have any comment on this particular section?

Quote:
Pride’s gospel also seems to border on “easy believism.” Witness the following (paraphrased and condensed) dialogue:

Chick: Let’s pray for my brother to recover from his injury right now.

Will: But if I regard sin in my heart, the Lord won’t hear me. You don’t know your Bible as well as I do.

Chick: Then get rid of the sin! … Ask God to forgive you. That’s all there is to becoming a Christian.

No mention of the deity of Christ. No clear understanding of substitutionary atonement. No mention of the resurrection. Just ask God to forgive you.


This, for me, raises the most warning flags. I don't expect BJU films to match up in quality with those produced by major Hollywood studios. I do expect BJU produced films to be able to accurately portray the gospel clearly, especially if the film is allegedly targeted as a witnessing tool.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Jim's picture

Positive:

http://www.dove.org/reviewpopup.asp?Unique_ID=8854

Brief excerpt:

Quote:
This is a terrific film for the entire family to enjoy together and the setting is the past, when the game of baseball was still young and the uniforms were hot and made of heavy material. Will Wright comes from the town side of the tracks and is called a town boy but makes friends with several of the players from the other side of town where most people make their living at the mill. The exception is Pike, who doesn't like anyone from town. Will's father tells him they shouldn't mix with those from the other side of town, and the social classes are set deep in some men's thinking.

Negative:

http://mildlyinsightful.com/2011/07/02/milltown-pride-review/

Brief excerpt:

Quote:
... the movie is intended as a “modernizing” of the Prodigal Son parable, but Lawson and the BJU higher-ups must have forgotten to actually read that beautiful passage. Milltown Pride, like so many BJU productions, dabbles in a kind of spiritual reductionism: externalize sin into a “vice” (in this case, a peculiar clear liquid which might be vodka), and equate deliverance from that vice with conversion to “true” Christianity.

Thus, the vast majority of Milltown Pride is spent focusing on the descent of its hero, Will Wright, from obedient, genteel banker’s son to drunk, baseball-obsessed lout. Particularly troubling to Will’s respectable parents is his association with “mill folk”, who, with their grubby faces and connections with baseball and drinking, are emphatically lower class. Don’t expect the movie to preach against that prejudice, though. Much the opposite: it takes for granted a society eternally split between Good (the wealthy, squeaky-clean Town Folk, who epitomize the Victorian morals BJU prizes) and Evil (the rough-and-tumble Mill Folk, who enjoy a good mason jar o’ the fire water with their roast beef). Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in Greenville can readily see the comparison being made.

You know how this will go. Will falls in love with a girl, but his drinking habit turns her off. He gets saved at a revival meeting, and subsequently gives up alcohol for more wholesome hobbies like playing with kids and reading his Bible. Our hero’s ladyfriend approves, and the movie lurches along to its inevitable climax on the baseball diamond. Does Will hammer the winning run in the Big Game? Does Lawson, playing the part of Will’s tyrannical father, overact the part with strenuous effort? Do all the actors behave as if in a Shakespeare Drama at The Globe, rather than in a historically irrelevant Christian fundamentalist production? Is anyone seen on camera of anything but the staunchest Caucasian descent? You already know the answers…

Milltown Pride is available via the BJU Store for the strange price of $19.96. Not rated, but contains scenes of explicit nonsense and acting which may frighten even the most mature audiences.

B Toothman's picture

I must admit, I have always been mystified by movie and restaurant reviews. What is it that makes one persons opinion so valuabe that they set down to critique something in such detail. If I critiqued some of the movies my wife watches and loves (I call them chick flicks) I am sure she would not agree with my opinion. Would that then mean she should not watch them anymore? Should she value my opinion that highly? I have watched some of the movie review shows on TV and have always thought them a bit arrogant. I have not seen MP so I cannot even give my opinion, not that it would be worth anything anyway. I wonder how many of us that play the part of the critic have ever made a movie? I have often heard it said "that everyone is a critic." Maybe that is because it is easy.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Maybe it is just my Green and Gold-colored glasses, but it seems like an odd time of the year to roll out a baseball movie. Don't most secular baseball movies come out in early spring?

Once the pigskin is kicked off, it is hard for anything baseball-related to get my attention -- other than dabbling a bit in the playoffs and WS.

I know that when Facing the Giants came out, it was done with a huge promotion during high school football season.

It would seem to me like the time to promote an old-fashioned baseball movie would be about late February.

Oh well -- a minor point I guess.

Church Ministries Representative for the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry

DavidO's picture

Good call, Paul. MP premiered in Greenville April 7 or thereabouts, so Unusual was right on top of the marketing angle.

I didn't see it until later and it took me a while to get around to writing the review.

(thanks for the kind words GregH and Dr. Carlson)

CPHurst's picture

In light of reading McKinght's new book he would say, "It presents the plan of salvation but not the Gospel and is thus another product of our salvation culture that needs the gospel."

Mike Harding's picture

I have showed the film twice in my church. Once on a Friday evening for the community and once on a Sunday evening for our church. On the first showing we actually had a baseball game with our Christian school and a local public high school team. We served hot dogs and snacks to all of our guests after the baseball game and then invited everyone in to watch MTP. Having previewed the film the best I could hope for was that the film would grant me the opportunity to present the gospel after the film was over. I have seen all the BJU films and was a violist in the BJU orchestra when we recorded the sound track for Sheffey. I don't think this film measured up to some of their previous films. Also, I thought it was a little too long. Nevertheless, I spent about 20 minutes after each presentation and gave the gospel clearly. My suggestion is that if you use the film for an evangelistic purpose you must verbally present the gospel after the film to make sure people really understand the doctrinal realities. One suggestion is that you use the different characters of the film to make application to Christian kids who grow up in a Christian home with merely a false profession of faith (the main character), others who had no such background but clearly turned to Christ from a life of sin when hearing the gospel (Will's friend at the Billy Sunday meeting), how bitterness can keep a person from ever embracing the gospel (the main antagonist).

Pastor Mike Harding

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