DVD Review: The Runner from Ravenshead

To me, the essence of what makes music compelling is not the melody, the arrangement, or the quality of the vocal—though all three will affect whether I like a piece. The heart is the story that is told in that four-minute time span, those twelve, sixteen, or twenty lines. This is why my efforts in Southern Gospel—apart from running this site—have been focused on studying the craft of songwriting.

But as everyone who has put pen to paper and attempted to form a song has eventually discovered, not all stories can be told in sixteen lines.

Ever since shortly after creation, cultures have had songs. Though styles have changed, songs have been a constant through the six thousand years of earth history. But the format in which those longer stories are told has changed through the centuries—oral traditions, books, magazines, and films. As our culture seems to allot a steadily decreasing amount of time for reading, films are becoming the primary method through which those longer stories are told. And even as YouTube shortens the average cultural attention span, feature-length films are becoming the last bastion of in-depth storytelling in our culture.

For several years, I have been watching the development of the independent Christian films movement with interest—enough, in fact, to contemplate starting a separate site solely devoted to covering this small but growing genre. But there just aren’t enough news items or DVD releases yet to sustain a steady stream of posts on the topic. So (to my regular readers), please pardon an occasional deviation from our typical topics of discussion.

On to the film. The Runner from Ravenshead is an allegory. The five actors are all siblings under the age of ten; their parents wrote, produced, and directed the film.

I have seen so many poorly done allegories, whether on film or elsewhere, that I am generally rather skeptical of the genre. Almost always, there is either a strong story but the application is a stretch, or the application is so much in the forefront that there isn’t much of a story at all. All too often, allegories do all your thinking for you.

The Runner from Ravenshead is one of those rare exceptions. There is an engaging story that is enjoyable on its own merits. And the allegory could be interpreted on several levels—on one level, as a story of salvation, and on another, as a picture of the trials those who are already Christians face on an ongoing basis.

The acting is convincing. Each of the five children played more than one part (more on that later), so it does take the first 10% or 15% of the film to really establish who’s who in your mind. But the children did such a good job at keeping roles separate that characters are clearly defined by the end of the first third. Especially for children, and even more for children in their first film, the actors do an incredible job portraying a wide range of emotions, from despair to frustration to embarrassment to joy. (And it doesn’t hurt anything that what another reviewer aptly termed “the cute factor” is through the roof.)

One of the first things that caught my eyes about the film was the fact that the soundtrack was recorded by the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra. Perhaps that might not ring a bell for the person on the street, but I hear that and two things immediately come to mind—the Gerald Wolfe arrangement of “Oh Holy Night” and the Kim Collingsworth piano solo “How Great Thou Art,” both of which feature the Prague orchestra. The soundtrack quality does not disappoint; though never overwhelming the dialogue, it adds a rich texture throughout that only live orchestras can create.

The film was made in Oregon, and the scenery is diverse and breathtaking, from mountain vistas to marshes to sets built to match the childrens’ height. Between the locations, the acting, and the score, the film feels more like a major-budget Hollywood production than a tiny independent film produced on a shoestring budget.

Like any other film, there are a few week points; two bear mentioning. First, it’s not clear until probably ten minutes into the film that the opening scenes are part of a daydream. An opening shot prior to the daydream sequence would have gone a long way toward establishing this; as it was, I spent the first ten minutes of the film wondering where it was going, rather than really grasping the storyline.

Second, the fact that each child has at multiple major roles in the film is more a drawback than a selling point. Between excellent costuming and excellent acting, the actors and directors did a decent job of keeping roles separate, but it still would have been a little better to have separate actors for each role (provided, of course, they were similarly talented).

Songs and scripts written by adults for children frequently sound more like something an adult wants a child to say than something a child would naturally say. With one minor exception, a brief scene where the dialogue seemed somewhat above what children that age would naturally say, the film did an exceptionally good job of keeping the emotions and verbal exchanges true to the age and ability of the actors. Not that it’s childish; it’s childlike. And the truth gets through; the film’s most memorable moment, other than the closing scene, is an exchange in which a sell-out in league with the bad guys challenges one of the good guys for granting mercy, and the necessity of mercy is expressed in a clear and simply beautiful way.

There are very, very few films, Christian or otherwise, to which I would give an unqualified recommendation. Whether from Christian or secular producers, virtually every film seems to have either a weak storyline, a weak presentation (due to acting, production, or both), or weak morals (whether from inappropriate language, apparel, or storyline). It’s not that The Runner from Ravenshead is without a few minor flaws—every movie has a few goofs—but while those are just enough to merit bumping a half-star off of a perfect rating, this film is still strong enough to earn an unqualified recommendation.

Rating: 4.5 stars.