Tom Rice is a Christian. He is also a movie producer. But that doesn’t mean he makes “Christian movies”. Instead, he says, he makes movies that reflect his Christian worldview on a broader level, and to date that has meant making uplifting films like Begin Again (original title: Can a Song Save Your Life?) and The Way Way Back, as well as grittier films like the gambling-addict drama Mississippi Grind.
Rice’s newest film The Hollars — which expands to three hundred theatres this week after opening in limited release a few weeks ago — is another case in point.
The film stars John Krasinski — who also directed — as a graphic novelist named John Hollar who returns to his hometown when he hears that his mother (played by Margo Martindale) has been diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Along the way he reconnects with his father (Richard Jenkins), whose business is struggling financially, and his brother (Sharlto Copley), whose marriage broke up a while ago. He also finds himself facing an increasingly uncertain future of his own now that his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) is pregnant.
But the film ultimately points in a redemptive direction — partly with the help of a youth pastor (Josh Groban) who happens to be dating the brother’s ex-wife.
“I think that this is the type of film that Christians should be supporting,” says Rice. “This is a movie about grace, grace in action. It’s about the messiness of family but it’s filled with levity and it’s full of redemption, it’s full of reconciliation, and it’s full of forgiveness, and people are going to see God in this movie.
“It’s a perfect example of a movie that has very Christian themes, but presented in a way that anyone can embrace and identify with.”
The script, by Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone), had been kicking around for a few years before Rice saw it, and it already had Krasinski, Martindale and Jenkins attached to play the central characters. By the time Rice was approached about producing the film, Krasinski had signed on to direct as well.
“I read it on a plane on a Sunday, and I was laughing out loud and crying out loud, and trying to hide that I was crying out loud, and then the next day I was sitting in front of John and pitching to him why I wanted him to pick me as his producer,” says Rice.
“A lot of times, I have to read scripts and imagine who would I put in this role, but I had the benefit of reading this script knowing it was the three of them, so that was such a luxury for me, to be able to fall in love with the script knowing who was playing the characters, and to be able to envision that.”
Rice, who was born in Jackson, Mississippi, was drawn to the story partly because his own father had had a brain tumour (the hospital where his dad was treated is one of a few different hospitals used in the film), but he says he also fell in love with the script on a much more universal level because of the themes and the “relatability” of the characters.
“This movie is reflective of real life,” says Rice — and this, he says is another reason why Christians should give the film a look, even though it’s not a “faith-based” movie.
“When you go look at overtly Christian movies — I’m not knocking them and God uses those — but for me, those are often very unrealistic situations,” he says. “They’re fantasy situations. The Christian stands up to the atheist in a symbolic battlefield with a battle cry, and it’s wonderful and inspiring, but that never happens in real life.“I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t support those movies, but they also need to support really good films that aren’t made specifically for them but are made to have an impact in the culture that we live in.”
Rice points to a scene from The Hollars — currently viewable at MinistryFlix.com — in which John’s father talks to his son about the regret he feels as he looks back on his life and wishes he had made different choices.
“I would encourage everybody to go download that clip, show it in your small group, show it in your youth group, show it in your family, and just use it as a topic of conversation about that,” says Rice. “And this movie is full of scenes that have those kind of relevant moments that aren’t so overt in the dialogue as to alienate the majority of the moviegoing audience out there.
“So we as Christians can have a positive impact on our communities and our societies by making more movies like this and supporting more movies like this.”
Rice’s production company is called Sycamore Pictures, partly because he once lived on a street called Sycamore, and partly because “the sycamore tree is the tree that gave Zacchaeus the better vantage point of Jesus,” says Rice, in a nod to the story from Luke 19.
And would he say the subtle Christian themes he finds in The Hollars are present in Sycamore’s earlier films too? “Absolutely,” says Rice.
“The Way Way Back is just an accessible, wholesome movie, and it’s about the importance of mentoring. We were surprised that [Blue Like Jazz author] Donald Miller wrote on his blog about the ending, when [the mother] says sometimes it’s better to be alone than in an abusive relationship. It was about finding your place. It was about being comfortable. There were wonderful thematic elements.
“Begin Again was also very much about reconciliation and redemption, and [how when things] aren’t going your way, how do you lift yourself out of it in a positive way.
“Mississippi Grind is about these two characters that are gambling addicts, so it was very raw, very true to that scene. Nothing gratuitous, nothing offensive or anything like that, but it was a little bit darker in tone. But it had to be darker in tone. You can’t make the point of that movie and make it a light-hearted romp. It’s not a buddy comedy. The whole point of that is to show the darkness of the underbelly of that world, and what that does to the human spirit and the human condition.
“But yeah, I do look for those themes,” says Rice, “and if you look at my body of work, you will see the recurring theme of brokenness and redemption and forgiveness and grace, because that’s what I need every day and that’s what I strive to give my friends and family every day.
“We’re in this thing called life together, and that’s what it’s about with each other and our relationships with God, so that’s what I tend to like thematically when I’m reading material.”
— The photo above shows Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley and John Krasinski as the father and two of his sons in The Hollars.