The Onion A.V. Club's review of this movie was pretty harsh, but personally, I thought it was phenomenal. They describe it as heavy-handed, whereas I thought it was actually quite subtle. Yes, sometimes the music is a bit much, but for the most part, the movie does a fantastic job of letting the material speak for itself.
The camerawork in the movie is incredible, and the footage is amazing. There are these fantastic shots of children praying that are framed just like religious icons, the single tear they weep almost too perfect. But then you also get the red-faced, snotty, sobbing, frizzy haired little girl wailing for jesus. There's this subtle interplay between these moments where these children seem freakishly adult, talking about their faith, being saved, etc, and then these moments where they act just like normal kids. Well, kind of. And while it's clear that a lot of these kids are basically parroting back things they've heard adults say, the movie isn't patronizing towards them, nor does it dismiss their beliefs. In fact, it takes their devotion seriously, giving them plenty of screen time to express themselves. The film does an excellent job balancing various kinds of footage; from prayer conferences, to interviews, to candid moments of people just sitting around relaxing. It's incredibly intimate - you really feel like you're getting an up-close look at what these things are really like. So much so, in fact, that I occasionally felt the need to forcibly remind myself that for this scene to be shown, there must have been a dude standing there with a camera filming it - it's very, very easy to forget when you're watching.
Interspersed throughout are scenes with a Christian radio talkshow host who is absolutely appalled by the rise of Evangelism and its political prowess. Incidentally, I think this is a brilliant move on the part of the filmmakers, that makes it explicit that this movie is not about ALL Christians, or all people of faith. Occasionally statistics flash across the screen - for instance, that 75% of home-schooled children are Evangelical Christians. For the most part, one has the sense that the movie is just setting all this information in front of you without slanting it in any given direction. The only real divergence from this is that the film is framed by Samuel Alito's appointment to the Supreme Court, but actually, this seems like a foil to me. Far more powerful, precisely because it's never made explicit, is haunting figure of George W. Bush. The radio talk-show guy talks about how the extreme Christian right is slowly working its way into positions of power - the president of the Evangelical Association of America says that when Evangelicals hit the polls, they decide the election - we are told that he meets with the President and his advisors weekly - various Evangelical Christians reiterate that George Bush is the best thing to have happened to America - and something clicks.
Why do I say that the film is not heavy handed? Because although there is a voice of critique present in the film it is always explicitly situated. Various sides are presented, and none is given precedence. Although one can find fault with the occasionally ominous music, it's no more ominous than the music that is actually being played at the prayer rallies. We watch the Kids on Fire director prepare her Power Point presentation and search for a font that appears to be dripping in blood. In other words, this imagery is not being thrust upon its subject from the outside. Furthermore, I am willing to bet that all of the people involved in this movie would be happy with the way they are portrayed.
The interviews with Betty Fischer, the director of the camp, are especially remarkable. I mean, she openly admits that she's indoctrinating children into hardcore Christian faith. What's really striking about this is that she says that "our enemies" are doing the same thing. But unlike most people, who speak of kids getting brainwashed into being suicide bombers, etc, Fischer seems to have the utmost respect for what they're doing and their methods - it just happens that, as she puts it, "truth is on our side".
One can't help, while watching the movie, wondering how much these children really understand. The shots of them speaking in tongues, for instance - this seems particularly brilliant to me, because it seems like such powerful proof of divine work, but then on the other hand, it seems so obvious to me that any kid would be happy to be given total freedom to scream gibberish. I mean, come on, it's fun. But it's so interesting, how there are these tropes for intensely religious experiences, like prayer, or speaking in tongues, and how these kids can so easily mimic them, or get swept up in them. Again, another subtle critique, is that the kid who looks like he's praying the most fervently (arms spread, body oddly controrted, face scrunched up in intense concentration) is the one who stands up in front of the group and confesses that he's really struggling with his faith, because sometimes he just doesn't believe what the Bible says, and he prays that he will truly believe. Wow.
Of course you can't help wondering how much these kids really get to be kids, and whether they actually struggle with this stuff, or what. One little girl talks about how when she dances, it's important to her to make sure it's the Holy Spirit dancing through her. She admits that sometimes when she does it, it's just dancing for the flesh. And she struggles to overcome that. There's a great scene where some boys are sitting around, and one tells another that he looks like Harry Potter. They all kind of smile uncomfortably, then say they're not allowed to read/watch Harry Potter because it's about witchcraft. To which the first boy says, somewhat gleefully, "My mom doesn't let me either, but I watch them at my dad's anyway". And the other kids looks absolutely horrified.
What really struck me, too, is how these people really sort of live in their own little world, a world that is totally different from mine. Not just the home-schooling thing, but also their attitude towards pop-culture - they mostly just dismiss it. As one little girl says, Britney Spears sings about boys and stuff, and she doesn't care about that. At the same time, they seem to have their own version of all of it - Christian rap, Christian death metal - it's wild. I mean, they've got their eye on the prize - they have a right answer, and anything that looks like evidence the the contrary is the Devil's work, end of story. I was imagining trying to convince such a person of anything, and honestly, I don't think it's actually possible. They just operate on different rules. For instance, a mother asks her son about global warming and why it's bullshit. And he obediently replies, the temperature has only gone up by 0.6 degrees. And she laughs and says, "So it's not really a big problem, is it?" I mean, it's just such a wholly different way of looking at the world.
Anyhow, a great movie. Highly recommended.