When film industry trades reported on D.C. native Luke Barnett‘s upcoming feature, Faith Based, about two nonbelievers who make a Christian film purely for the money, the right-wing media gave him all the free publicity he could ask for. Fox News and Breitbart published scathing articles (about a film no one had seen), criticizing Barnett for mocking the faith-based community. Barnett leaned into the controversy, filming a teaser that featured him and his co-star reading aloud the vicious comments they received from those sites’ readers. The video has racked up more than 87,000 views.
Their critics, however, may be surprised when they see the film. “We all come from evangelical backgrounds,” Barnett tells City Paper, referring to his collaborators. “I don’t want to bash Christian beliefs. I do feel that the faith-based industry has a lot of problems.” Faith-based films have been around for as long as movies have existed, but the recent boom began with the 2014 release of God’s Not Dead, an independent feature starring Kevin Sorbo that reportedly earned more than $60 million domestically on its $2 million budget. The film, about a Christian student who battles an atheist professor at a liberal arts college, set the template for the many faith-based films that would follow: low budget, with a politically-charged narrative and a D-list star. Plenty of faith-based films are released every year, and, with churches sending busloads of ticket-buyers to theaters, plenty of them turn a profit.
That’s what motivates Luke and Tanner, the protagonists of Faith Based. Played by Barnett and friend Tanner Thomason, they’re a pair of 30-something slackers who decide on a whim to make a faith-based movie as a solution to their money problems, and enlist friends to help make their pipe dream a reality. Faith Based pokes fun at Christian films while also telling a character-based story and taking the issue of belief quite seriously. “There’s this weird period of time in your 30s when everyone around you is starting to figure it out, and if you haven’t yet, that’s a weird place to be in,” Barnett says. “I wanted to tell a story about trying to find your purpose when it feels like you’re the only one who hasn’t.”
Barnett, whose father is a pastor, was born in D.C. and moved to Prince George’s County as a child. He didn’t have an interest in arts immediately, although he notes, “I was always kind of loud and obnoxious as a kid.” He credits his creativity to an early screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“It was the first time I ever laughed so hard that I cried”), and the fact that he attended a small high school, Grace Brethren Christian School in Clinton, Maryland. “I went to a small school where you could do a little bit of everything. I got to play soccer and do fun roles in the plays. Every time a play came around, I got to do something in it.”
Now in Los Angeles, Barnett and his filmmaking partner Vincent Masciale—Barnett writes and Masciale directs—are making independent films without interference from studios or financiers. “Faith Based was shot for as low of a budget as you can shoot a movie,” Barnett says. “We’re talking credit cards. We shot at my house, my in-laws house, the bar we used to work at, the church we used to go to.”
Like the pair’s 2016 horror satire Fear, Inc., Faith Based will bypass a theatrical release and go straight to streaming, where a cast that includes comedy stars David Koechner and Jason Alexander in minor roles will make it stand out.
Barnett is hoping that Christian viewers will give it a chance. Faith Based may not be a typical Christian film, it’s rated R for language for example, but it displays a greater curiosity about the meaning of faith and religion in modern life than most other films that tout their piety. “I think it could be considered a faith-based movie,” Barnett says, “but the word could mean a lot of things. It could mean faith in the people around you, or having faith in your son, or having faith in anything you believe in.” Rather than preach to the converted, Faith Based opens its doors to believers and nonbelievers alike. It deserves a bigger congregation.
Faith Based is available this Friday on VOD.