Pardon the presumption, but Christians deserve better than this. “Love’s Abiding Joy” — the first theatrical release by 20th Century Fox’s newly minted Fox Faith division — is a bland, blinkered tale of life on the American frontier, full of lukewarm virtue but sorely lacking in cinematic ambition.
Based on the fourth novel in the “Love Comes Softly” series by author Janette Oke, “Love’s Abiding Joy” continues the romantic saga of pioneers Missie and Willie Lahaye, a young married couple struggling to keep their farm afloat in a 19th-century sea of drought, child sickness and greedy creditors. When tragedy strikes the family — coinciding with a visit from Missie’s father (corpse-stiff Dale Midkiff from “Pet Sematary”) — Willie (Logan Bartholomew) reluctantly takes a job as the town sheriff. Meanwhile, Missie (Erin Cottrell) quits her teaching job and slips into an insensate, bedridden funk.
“Love’s Abiding Joy” is so uniformly mediocre, audiences may feel like they’ve stumbled onto a Lilliputian hideout where everything is diminished to scale. The camera work is dull, the dialogue is flat, the acting not that good. This last item proves particularly limiting when the morally conflicted Willie has to start evicting friends and fellow churchgoers from their property on behalf of the town’s greedy land baron (John Laughlin). Director Michael Landon Jr. thoughtfully dresses the guy in black, making it easy for us to peg him as evil right off the bat.
What we get, ultimately, is a Hallmark Hall of Fame goo-fest masquerading as a first-run motion picture. The first three “Love Comes Softy” movies all premiered on the Hallmark Channel, and it seems likely that this installment — once its theatrical run is complete — will assume its rightful place on the small screen (the commercial-ready fade-outs are a dead giveaway). On the other hand, more forgiving audiences will appreciate the film’s uncomplicated endorsement of such Christian principles as faith, charity and the righteous blackmailing of greedy land barons.
With the promotional help of Christian retailers, Fox Faith plans to roll out six faith-based movies a year, giving notoriously homebound Christian audiences more reasons to come to the theater. Let’s hope they are better reasons than “Love’s Abiding Joy.”
‘Love’s Abiding Joy’
Starring: Logan Bartholomew, Erin Cottrell, Dale Midkiff
Rating: PG (mild thematic elements)
Running time: 84 minutes
Playing: Now playing in Valley theaters