I'm guessing this isn't the introductory sentence you were expecting, but stick with me: Dr. Richard Mouw, the renowned evangelical theologian and philosopher—and, most recently, president of Fuller Theological Seminary—wrote a book in 1994 called Consulting the Faithful: What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion. In it, Mouw writes directly to those Christians who feel they have, in some sense, "graduated" from the sort of church they grew up in—from, perhaps, a low-church evangelicalism to what they see as a more culturally-aware, intellectually-engaged faith.
Mouw's argument is that the Christian intellectual (or just one who wants to be) has a great deal to learn from the religious practice of the masses. In the book he points out the poverty we bring on the church and on our world if we forget this. It's a reminder that resonates, sometimes uncomfortably, with those who (for instance) find themselves wincing at corny skits when they go home for the holidays, or turn up their noses at everything having to do with Christian subculture. Certainly there might be things to discuss and debate and even eschew in American popular religion, Mouw says, but let's not make the grave mistake of tossing it all out in pursuit of something more highbrow and cool.
I found myself thinking about Mouw's admonition in an unlikely place: a movie theater in midtown Manhattan, where I was watching Kristen Wiig sniff disdainfully at Annette Bening's taste in men. Girl Most Likely belongs to the genre of films about sophisticated city-dwellers returning home to the heartland/suburbs/New Jersey to discover that's where true love and contentment lies, which arguably starts with Zach Braff's Garden State. It continues on through Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown and Jason Reitman's Young Adult and a host of other films that are (sometimes mercifully) lost to the wilds of IMDB.
Directed by Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini, the husband-wife team who made American Splendor, Girl Most Likely follows its same contours with a bit of a lighter touch. It's a romantic comedy, emphasis on the comedy, the sort where the meet-cute happens in the heroine's mother's bathroom because the boarder barges in by accident while the heroine is peeing sleepily. Where Young Adult was dark, Girl Most Likely has affection for all its oddball characters, except the ones who fancy themselves a cut above everyone else.
Imogene (Wiig, one of the few women in Hollywood who's trusted to carry a film without anyone more famous playing her love interest) came to New York as a playwright with promise, recipient of a prestigious fellowship and named as someone to watch in major media outlets. Her friend Dara—met through the board of the foundation that gives out the fellowship—has introduced Imogene to a bevy of uppercrusty Upper East Side socialite types as well as her boyfriend, who has sidestepped talk of marriage by saying they are spiritually bound, in what he claims is the tradition of his Dutch family.
But it all falls spectacularly apart, and so does Imogene, who has to flee home to her family in Ocean City, New Jersey. That family consists of her mother (Bening), long-widowed and saddled with a compulsive personality disorder and a taste for gambling, and her little brother Ralph (a loveable and weird Christopher Fitzgerald), whose own disorders have kept him from venturing past the Ocean City Boardwalk his entire life. Imogene's mother has taken on a young boarder to help pay the bills (Glee's Darren Criss) and a boyfriend, who is supposedly in the CIA (a vaguely crazy-eyed Matt Dillon). It's such a full house that the great urban sophisticate Imogene finds herself sleeping in old gym clothes in a living room fort Ralph constructs from sheets and clothespins.
From here, what will more or less happen is pretty clear, though the story structure is a little uneven. Wiig—one of Hollywood's top comedic actors, male or female, after the runaway success of Bridesmaids— is in the odd position of playing straight woman to the bevy of misfits, a drama queen stuffed into a box. This keeps the movie from being as funny as it might be, and it starts to drag a bit in the middle. But there's enough unexpected quirk throughout to save it from being boring, and every cast member pulls his or her weight well. It's a perfectly enjoyable bit of entertainment.
Yet it might be more than that, for those with eyes to see. We, along with Imogene, come to understand how much of her parents' mess-ups, her brother's problems, and her hot-pink Jersey Shore upbringing is precisely what has made her into a playwright to watch, someone unique. To underline the point, the Manhattan of this film is filled with people in identical ivory and black dresses who live in colorless apartments, while Ocean City is garish with color and sparkle and glitter. Imogene must find her own balance of the two (with the help, to nobody's surprise, of the cute boarder), embracing the broken but loving place she came from even as she moves ahead with her dreams.
So that brings me back to Rich Mouw and Consulting the Faithful. Here's my hunch: Girl Most Likely, and movies like it, are good for all of us—Millennials especially, but not exclusively—to watch whenever we're starting to roll our eyes too much, when we start to think the outmoded faith of our parents has got nothing to teach us. They can remind us how much we are in debt to our heritage. We owe a great deal to those who first taught us to pray and sing and memorize Bible verses and love Jesus. And we still have much to learn, even as we try to find our own way individually and as a generation.
I'm preaching to myself as much as anyone here: next time you walk past a Christian bookstore and wince, or find yourself snickering in the back row of a church service, or think you can safely dismiss people who just don't "get it," a little Girl Most Likely might be in order.
Girl Most Likely is rated PG-13 for sexual content and language, including some profanities and crude talk of sexual acts and a little bodily humor (though nothing at all on the level of what we saw in Wiig's last big project, Bridesmaids). Two characters wake up in bed together after a night of heavy drinking and clubbing. A character fakes a suicide very convincingly.