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REVIEW: Johnny (2010)

Johnny (2010)Directed by: D. David Morin
Produced by: Byron Jones, Tom Saab, Michael Scott, David A.R. White, Russell Wolfe
Written by: David Michael Anthony; D. David Morin, Alan Smithee (screenplay)
Edited by: D. David Morin
Cinematography by: Todd Barron
Music by: David Miner
Starring: Jerry Phillips, Mel Fair, Musetta Vander, Aubyn Cole, Lee Majors, Lonnie Colón, Leslie L. Miller, Brandon Klopot
Year: 2010


A couple weekends ago, I had spent a great deal of time watching gritty, dark sci-fi/action movies – Event Horizon, Dredd, the new Riddick – and so, searching for a change of tone, I went searching through my Netflix suggestions and came across the “Sentimental Tearjerker” section. Figuring that was completely opposite of what I had been watching, I decided to peruse the selection and came across this movie called Johnny, which had the goofiest looking artwork, which just screamed “low budget Christian cinema.” The synopsis was even worse: “Still reeling from his 10-year-old son’s tragic accidental death, Dr. Drew Carter attempts to assuage his family’s grief by adopting Johnny Bell, a terminally ill foster child suffering from leukemia.” So, basically, the kid’s being treated like a therapy dog?

Johnny - Jerry Phillips

Happiness in the face of death is a true sign of Christianity. (Not.)

I didn’t watch the movie immediately (instead opting for Our Idiot Brother, as suggested elsewhere, which had far more actors that I liked – though it turned out to be incredibly meh as a movie), but I added it to my queue, as I knew that, some day, I would want to review it for this site. That day came quickly, as I decided to watch the film a couple nights later, my morbid curiosity getting the better of me. I figured it would be good for a laugh, similar to how in high school, when my family didn’t have cable and relied only on rabbit ears, I would often stay up late watching and critiquing whatever program was airing on TBN as I tried to fall asleep.

A lot of these types of movies really get on my nerves. They’re usually more concerned about their message than they are their artistic integrity. (Though, judging by the “Alan Smithee” credit, at least one of the screenwriters wanted to be disassociated from what they hath wrought.) Being a Christian myself, I’ve always found it hard to get into Christian pop culture. The music, the movies, the art… They’ve always fallen short of being anything more than mediocre, at best – at least in my eyes. I grew up spending a large portion of my time in what is essentially the Bible Belt of America, in a portion of New Mexico that basically aspired to be Texas and may as well have been, given its proximity. Having been exposed to this culture for a good while, I feel like I know the audience that films like Johnny are aiming for – those who want good, wholesome films that the whole family can watch and learn from, with characters who can serve, if not as role models, then at least examples of the ideal Christian. It would be easy to vilify them, as even I often found that, as a kid who had a penchant for writing sometimes violent (but never deranged) short stories in my free time (and, with the exception of one instance in fourth grade, never for school), they were not nearly as tolerant for my own brand of good vs. evil – despite the fact that we were constantly exposed to incredibly violent stories contained in the Bible.

Kurt Warner gets a lot of name drops in this movie, because Christians tend to cling to celebrities who profess Christianity with desperation.

Kurt Warner gets a lot of name drops in this movie, because some Christians tend to cling to celebrities who profess Christianity with sad desperation.

The problem with this type of mentality is that the art ceases to be reflective of reality. Christians are either perfect examples or backsliders who need to learn a lesson, while non-Christians either the villains or well-meaning potential converts. Johnny kind of takes from a bit of both approaches.

Johnny is the primary character here. He’s a preachy, unusually perky 10-year-old boy who nonetheless not only suffers from terminal leukemia, but who has also been both abandoned and orphaned, necessitating his placement in foster care, where he’s taught in all the Christian ways by his slang-slinging, cool guy mentor, Clyde, and Glenda, who takes him to appointments and such. Johnny’s the kind of fairy tale kid who faces death with a smile and sees it as an opportunity to go on a “special mission” for God, and though he’s still not quite sure what his mission is, he’s certain that there has to be some reason for God to have put him on this earth, even if only for a short while. It’s not long before Johnny’s mission becomes apparent – at least to the audience – however, as Johnny is soon put in the care of Dr. Drew Carter, who has a nice house, a nice family, and is undoubtedly a nice person, but the perfect image has been stained by the death of his son not too far back. Also, he’s not a Christian, and neither is his family.

Trust me... I'm a doctor. ... HeheheheheehehehHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Trust me… I’m a doctor… AHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Drew’s affection for the dying, orphaned foster child who mostly takes it all in relative stride is understandable, but he takes it a step further when he suggests to his still-grieving wife, Julia, that they take in Johnny until he passes. Drew is obviously not a psychologist, as somehow he sees taking in a dying boy as a means of snapping his depressed wife out of her state. Julia understandably objects, but, well… Johnny can’t help but tug on the doctor’s heartstrings.

Now, see, here’s where the film goes from inoffensive but embarrassing Christian propaganda to transforming into an incredibly grotesque farce. Drew, not only without his wife’s consent but with an outright objection over his head, decides to take in Johnny anyway, placing him in their sons’ old room, while he’s at it. Their daughter is thrilled to have a new friend and even lends Johnny some clothes, but Julia, though polite to Johnny, is furious with her husband. While Drew apologizes for sneaking the boy over, the film essentially agrees with the doctor in essentially vilifying Julia, who blames herself for the death of their son. She rejects Johnny, who also has the audacity to confront her and guilt trip her about his being there. Drew and his daughter, Kayla, bond with Johnny and learn about his Christian faith, but when Julia refuses to show this new boy the same affection she did her own son, the film is in agreement with their daughter when Kayla gives her a nasty look and runs off to her room. She becomes the film’s villain by default. Naturally, Johnny being a feel-good movie at its core, I feel no qualms about telling you now that Julia will eventually have a change of heart, as that’s to be expected – but it’s one that necessitates her apology to all the others who have foisted upon her this new hell on earth and requires of her to take on the responsibility of motherhood to a little boy once again.

She's sad, so she must be going to hell.

She’s sad, so she must be going to hell.

While it’s revealed that certain circumstances understandably led Julia to feel that guilt about her son’s death, I still find it incredibly troubling that she’s the one who has to apologize for her actions in relation to the whole Johnny situation, when it’s her husband who has mistreated this grieving woman who needed all the support in the world to forgive herself. Pardon my French, but he’s quite the asshole – going so far as to all but yell at her and call her an awful person when she begs him to reverse his decision, for herself as well as for Johnny, who she at least knows will also suffer in her care. Instead, the film all but applauds her family and Johnny for guilting her into falling in line with how she should be. For a film that is calling for us to be more compassionate to those who are in need of compassion, Johnny is disgustingly shortsighted in who it doles out its compassion to and by what means.

The film just isn’t theologically sound. By having Julia only become a Christian after she has learned to ask everyone else for forgiveness, and only after both her daughter and her husband have done so, as well, it sends the message that Christianity is only for those who achieve perfection or enlightenment or something. Kayla gets her disgustingly sweet little “repeat after me” moment of prayer with Johnny that signifies her conversion, and Drew, having spent so much time with Johnny and listening to his beliefs (and not helping to take care of his wife, I remind you), achieves his tearful (or, at least, I think that’s what they were going for – but more on that later) big moment of accepting Jesus on a pretty beach by professing to God his belief, but Julia’s transformation not only requires her to ask for forgiveness of past mistakes, legit though they may have been, but also signifies her miraculous ascent out from the depression she’s been mired in for the past couple years. There’s very little ambiguity or nuance going on here, and Christianity suffers as a result of this trite, unfounded portrayal of righteousness. It suggests that happiness is either a side effect of and/or signifier of salvation, which – as someone who has suffered from his own issues in this area and yet maintained his Christianity – I find incredibly insulting.

The scene in which Johnny tells Kayla she's saved now.

The scene in which Johnny tells Kayla she’s saved now.

This all might have been easier to swallow if it had at least been a competently made film, but it’s not even that. The score is mostly lush, generic idealistic themes interspersed with happy, silly songs about being a child and, occasionally, a plinking piano and sad violin duet for those forced tearjerker moments. The film even looks generic, with the same bright lighting used for almost every single shot. It also seems like everyone was provided with teeth whitening vouchers prior to filming, lest they encourage kids to drink too much coffee or tea or something.

Performances are almost universally atrocious. I don’t want to pick on child actors, so I’ll just say that Jerry Phillips and Aubyn Cole as Johnny and Kayla are provided with a script that requires them to be even more artificial and precocious than a Family Circus comic. May they go on to better things. Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man, barely registers as Johnny’s aging doctor who refers him to Drew and who also refers Drew to his church men’s group, which Johnny insists he tries out, despite his increasingly deteriorating state. Mel Fair, as Drew, gives a mostly robotic performance, phoning in dialogue and going through the motions – that is, until he’s required to cry on screen when he just resembles Lindsay Fünke’s futile attempts to cry on Arrested Development – scrunching up has face, gasping for air, and cracking his voice, but no tears and no sincerity ever to be seen. Every time I felt a crying scene coming, I kept begging in my head, “No no no… no… Don’t … oh… Oh, you’re doing it again! NO! Stop, please!”

... Seriously, you're going to pull a muscle.

… Seriously, you’re going to pull a muscle.

The only actor who I believe gets off the hook here is, remarkably, Musetta Vander, the actress who plays Julia – and who is not and is not related to, might I add, Melinda Clarke, despite the resemblance. Perhaps it’s because her character is the only one to undergo any significant character changes, but the actress brings along with her some notable, authentic, and welcome human emotion to a movie that is otherwise populated by characters more artificial than a Lee Majors action hero.

I got far more than I bargained for when I put Johnny in my queue and decided that I was going to make myself watch it. The filmmakers were obviously not concerned about making art with this film, so I can only assume they were intending to use the medium as a catalyst for their sermonizing. And while that sounds all well and good to a lot of people, it’s a movie that essentially personifies that old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” A preachy, inarticulate, poorly constructed, poorly conceived, deplorable, and insulting work such as this is regrettably the kind of image that a lot of Christians will embrace and consequently reinforce in the eyes of non-Christians. One look through the Netflix user reviews of this film already proves that, in the 3 years since its release, Johnny has certainly found an eager audience waiting to welcome it into their homes and embrace it for its perceived message about learning compassion and selflessness. While it may not be high art, at least they are getting anything positive from it, so it can’t be all bad, right? I’ve embraced films with far worse morals than this one, after all, so what room do I have to say that Johnny is any different from those “secular” films I love so much?

Johnny - Lee Majors

“I swear to God, if you ask me if we can rebuild him one more time…”

But, you see, I can’t endorse this film – not as a fan of movies, and most certainly not as a Christian, because if there’s one thing I really cannot support, it’s a misrepresentation of what it means to be a Christian at the hands of professing Christians – the type of hypocritical Christianity that demands perfection from its members, questions the faith of those who are struggling more obviously with issues, and primarily sees others as potential followers with targets on their foreheads. Johnny isn’t a film that outright says this, of course, but it’s easy enough to glean the underlying, conditionally compassionate worldview that went into the film’s conception, whether consciously or not on the part of the filmmakers. I’m a Christian, and I had a hard enough time watching it myself. I can only imagine the agony that awaits any non-Christian whose Christian friends would feel the urge to “witness” to them through this movie and movies like it. I can only pray that this is a sermon that remains preached only to the choir.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 0 / 5

  1. Cutie cup cakes
    May 31, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    I disagree and I love the film, kids can share God’s word
    I think this is great

    • CJ Stewart
      June 2, 2014 at 11:34 pm

      Firstly, thanks for reading! I definitely agree with the first part of that, for sure – we should definitely never underestimate children, and they could definitely provide us with fresh (or renewed) insight. I recall being in my grandparents’ church long ago in high school and being annoyed by the sight of two parents who denied their kid, who was about 10, the communion because they said he wasn’t “able to understand.” Obviously, they probably knew him better than me, but it seemed so… patronizing.

      That being said, I do disagree on this movie’s quality, obviously, and don’t really think that “Johnny” is the appropriate film to demonstrate childlike faith and the like. There’s tear-jerking, which can be effective, and then there’s pandering, which is never effective, and I’d definitely put “Johnny” in the latter category, myself (as you know — you’ve read the review… I presume).

      Even in fantasy, the characters have to have an element of reality, and Johnny, even with his later confession of fear, is far too saintly to be recognizable as a real person with real struggles and even real convictions. He has to have flaws, but the movie doesn’t even hint at them. It was like what you would expect from an episode of “Touched by an Angel,” except that the show actually did a similar episode that managed to be a little more realistic in its character portrayals, even if it was still a schmaltzy melodrama: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0732108/

      What specifically did you like about “Johnny,” though?

  2. Guineapigs> racing
    September 15, 2014 at 2:26 am

    I disagree some children have just as much faith as adults and they can share their faith also. I love this film, it is very moving. I don’t like the fact adults are so snobby about the older you are the more faith you have, some kids will tell the Gospel better than adults.

    • CJ Stewart
      September 15, 2014 at 7:14 pm

      I would definitely agree that adults tend to undermine kids when it comes to faith. That’s not actually my problem with the movie, however. As someone who also has issues with depression all through my life and has been told that I’m just not praying well enough, don’t understand, and all sorts of similar things, I pretty much resent the fact that this movie villainizes a grieving woman who obviously needs counseling, and just as my faith was called into question because of problems I’ve struggled with myself, as if it weren’t legitimate. I’m obviously reading it differently from you, though! :-)

  3. Bizzy
    April 12, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    You can be any age to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t care how old you are. Johnny is a fine example of how we can be bold in our faith. And just saying wouldn’t you be afraid if you were a child of ten and dieing? No matetr how strong a Christian people are they will still have moments of afraidness.

    • CJ Stewart
      April 12, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      Again, I’m not at all debating those facts. Please see my previous replies regarding this, as I’ve already stated that children CAN be followers of Christ, and I do acknowledge that Christians will go through hard times – I happen to have gone through tough times throughout my life, which were sometimes even harder after I’d become a Christian. My issues with the movie aren’t that it’s about a child but rather it’s presentation of its story, the terrible acting, and the fact that it actually DOES portray Christians as having happier lives than non-Christians by portraying the grieving mother with a husband who doesn’t take her grief into consideration before acting as the de facto villain of the movie UNTIL she converts. The fact that Johnny was the one who helped her along the way wasn’t the issue; it was that she wasn’t over her grief until she became a Christian. Believe me, you can grieve and be depressed, even as a Christian, and the film is irresponsible in portraying it otherwise.

  1. September 21, 2013 at 12:20 am
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