I have been a bit obsessed with the new faith-based Netflix musical A Week Away. Since watching it in April, I have not gone a week without thinking about it.
That’s not necessarily because the movie is good. The mashup of High School Musical and your youth group’s skit night is exactly what you’d expect: cheesy teen hijinks dressed up in squeaky-clean church (camp) clothes. It’s never as angry or offensive as something like God’s Not Dead, but it also doesn’t have much on its mind, either. It’s a camp musical that occasionally tosses out Bible verses.
But the film’s musical sequences, anchored to a series of ‘90s and 00’s Christian music classics, has stuck with me. Again, not always because the music is good. But for someone raised on these songs — in a culture where Amy Grant was more popular than Mariah Carey — it packs a weird nostalgic punch. I’ve never heard these songs on such a mainstream platform, and I’d be lying if I said this film wasn’t partially responsible for this blog. So, I thought rather than write about the film again, I’d revisit its musical sequences and see just how well they capture the tone of a camp comedy and, more importantly, how much justice they do to the titans of CCM.
Let’s Go Make a Memory
The first clue that A Week Away is not really aimed at today’s teenagers is its obsession with the ‘80s. Its character George (Jahbril Cook) loves John Hughes movies, and the entire camp movie genre itself is a staple of the decade. And every camp comedy needs a quirky, animated opening.
“Let’s Go Make a Memory” is a fun way to kick things off. It’s light and happy, and spills out over stop-motion animation of packed suitcases, photos and guitars. It’s not based on any pre-existing CCM song, and there’s not much Christian to it except for a general sense of uplift. But it’s not a bad way to get into the film’s general upbeat vibe. (B+)
The Great Adventure
Steven Curtis Chapman’s classic is a driven light rock anthem about spiritual epiphany. The general story is about a man tired of the rat race, whose eyes are opened when he reads about the abundant life Christ offers. While the film’s protagonist, Will (Kevin Quinn), has had a rough life, it seems a bit weird for him to be singing the song in a social worker’s office. He’s decided to go to Jesus camp rather than juvenile hall, but there’s no real spiritual question he’s wrestling with.
So, the song passes off to Sherri Shepherd’s character, the camp counselor who takes him in. And again…it doesn’t fit. It just introduces Christianity into the film’s world, promising that Will eventually will share the same epiphanies as everyone at camp. The choreography is also painfully literal here; the lyrics “somewhere between the pages” (of the Bible) are accompanied by shots of office workers showering the leads with reams of paper, which not only misses the point of the song it also is likely not sanctioned by HR. As will be a common theme, the overproduced vocals also don’t stand alongside SCC’s voice.
One thing it gets right? The feeling of being stuck on a church bus with a bunch of youth group kids singing the song and coming up with their own hand motions. This film seems to suggest, though, that that’s fun. C-
A Week Away works best when it leans into being a dopey, but kind of charming, teen romance. “Good Enough” concerns George and Presley’s insecurities. The two are attracted to each other, but think they’re out of each other’s league. So, their friends encourage them. It’s insipid and silly, but that’s teen love. It’s a fun little number, and Cook and Kat Conner Sterling are the film’s standouts.
This is one of the film’s original numbers, and Adam Watts, Alan Powell and Cory Clark understand how Christian music straddles the line between love songs and worship ballads. Sure, everyone is singing about how George and Presley are good enough for each other, but a few tweaks could turn this into a song about grace and the worries about being “good enough” for God. I don’t condone that, necessarily (it plays into the South Park line about all Christian music simply substituting “Jesus” for “Baby”), but it fits the form. B
I get that the producers probably thought this was a good fit because of all the diving and water metaphors in the song. But it doesn’t even work. Why sing “the rains have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground” when it’s been sunny all film? There’s no “wild and rushing” river here; it’s a placid lake. And for a song about diving in, most of the choreography takes place on the shore or in ankle-deep water.
There’s something that almost works about the song’s celebration of something bigger being sung by a group of excited church kids (and, again, the choreography feels straight out of youth group praise time). And the SCC cameo as a lifeguard is a nice touch (he’s a good sport). But it’s also weird to attach this song to Will, who hasn’t been on the cusp of making any spiritual decision at this point in the film. (C-)
I can’t lie: They nail this one. Jahbril Cook is easily the film’s star, and he knows exactly how to play this role with the right blend of earnestness and camp. It helps that this musical number takes place in his head, as he imagines finally winning Presley over. Baby, Baby is a cheery pop ballad, and the film leans hard into the cheese. The neon-drenched stage George create in his mind is a nice touch. And I appreciate that when the joke’s gone on long enough, the film knows to cut out. It just proves the #1 tenant of Christian music: You won’t go wrong with Amy Grant. A
Place in This World
Hey, this one fits thematically! Michael W. Smith’s ballad is about grappling with identity and trying to find out where you belong. So, it makes sense to tie it to Will, who is grappling with feeling out of place at a camp full of shiny, polished Christians, and Avery, who feels put into a box because her dad’s the camp counselor. Quinn and Bailee Madison have good voices, and the choreography is simple, and the visuals make good use of fields, woods and lakes. Sure, it turns a song about existential angst into a love ballad, but Smitty’s original music video already did that, anyway. B+
Mea culpa: When I originally saw the movie, I dinged this version of the Audio Adrenaline song because instead of a “big, big yard where we can play football,” it was set in a wooded grove while playing paintball. I must have been staring at my phone, though, because there are indeed shots of football (and tug of war).
“Big House” is, of course, the ultimate youth group song. Lyrically, I’ve never quite understood whether the song was about Heaven or inviting someone to church, but either way, it’s easy to see why this caught on with teenagers. It’s about community and acceptance, and so scoring it to a song about camp activities makes sense.
But real talk? The overly auto-tuned singing is no match for the still very fun Audio Adrenaline original, and once again the choreography feels self-conscious and stilted. If you ever attended a church Youth Night and watched the teen choir perform this with hand motions, this feels about the same. C
Awesome God/God Only Knows
Rich Mullins’ “Awesome God” is a church camp staple (at least the chorus; for whatever reason, no one ever sings the lyrics, which is a topic for another post). So, the setting is perfect for bringing this one out. I’m less familiar with For King and Country, who debuted when I was in a non-Christian music phase, but blending “God Only Knows” is a nice touch. If only this sounded like it was recorded by a campfire; once again, the vocals are over-produced.
But there’s a bigger issue, and it’s my main gripe with A Week Away. What, exactly, is the spiritual moment everyone is having? There’s some vague talk that “God sees you, and he’s a fan” and a mention of Jer. 29:11. Will seems to be having some crisis of faith, but the film never seems much interested in exploring that. The song and setting make it feel like there’s a spiritual moment occuring, but the actual experience seems a bit empty. In that respect, maybe it’s the perfect approximation of church camp. C+
Where I Belong
Will’s big, “come to Jesus” moment. Or is it? In true CCM fashion, the lyrics are vague, and the visuals don’t help. Will sets off from camp but quickly returns because …. he’s had a spiritual experience? He had fun playing tug of war? He met friends? I guess it’s all of the above, but it ties into the film’s biggest problem, in that it never quite feels like its spiritual convictions are rooted in anything. And listen, I hate big, overblown conversion moments in movies as much as anyone; but if you’re celebrating the genre, you kind of need it, and this film misses it. The song sounds nice, but the lyrics are insipid. D+
Best Thing Ever
The great musical moment — the protagonist shows up on stage and begins singing a song that everyone knows the words to. It’s silly and stupid, but it’s a musical, and you need to honor these little moments. Honestly, it’s a fun little bop, and I appreciate that it carries over to the ending, complete with one last gasp of church choir choreography. The song isn’t even the best thing in the movie, but it’s a fun little way to close it out. B
Oh wait, that’s right. In a movie about church camp and teenagers building relationships, the movie never takes the most obvious route and closes with all the characters singing Michael W. Smith’s “Friends”. Maybe these friends aren’t friends forever. Is the Lord the lord of them? Would Smitty give over the rights? Maybe they’ll sing it in A Week Away 2. Either way, it feels like a big missed opportunity not to close a celebration of CCM out with the most CCM-y song ever.
A Week Away is now streaming on Netflix.