If Octavia Spencer is God, then Lord, take me to church. A folksy Spencer serving up homemade baked goods is the vision of the divine in “The Shack,” Stuart Hazeldine’s faith-based drama. But it’s a dark and windy road to get to that beatific image, delving into the history of “Mack” Phillips (Sam Worthington), a wayward soul who needs a restorative stay to get right with himself.
The story is nested in a flashback narrated by a pastor named Willie (Tim McGraw) and takes a leisurely, non-linear path. Mack had a violent childhood, forging his view of God as punishing and judgmental. That worldview is exacerbated by the abduction of his youngest daughter during a family camping trip.
Plunged into depression, Mack receives an invitation in the mail from “Papa” (his wife’s name for God), asking him to a weekend getaway at the shack where his daughter was probably killed. Seeking revenge, or at least some answers, he heads to the woods. There he’s greeted by a trio of groovy spiritual teachers in a wooded paradise: God, also known as Papa (Spencer); Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush); and The Holy Spirit Sarayu (Sumire). Is this heaven or is this Burning Man?
It’s easy to be flippant with the premise, and it’s needed, because the framing story is dark and depressing. But once he’s at the God Spa, despite all the hokey walking on water, caves of Wisdom and magical gardens, the things that Papa, Jesus and Sarayu have to say are pretty profound.
Faith-based films have been gaining traction in the industry, catering to an underserved audience. They run the gamut of genre and tone, but the presentation of Christian faith remains the same: positive, open, loving, ignoring any messy real-world politics that might be associated with modern Christianity. In this brightened vision, who wouldn’t want to stay at the God B&B?
Worthington is an apt choice for this role. He’s always been a blank slate to project onto, a sponge to soak up every life lesson. His Mack feels empty, ready to be filled with the positive vibes he gets from his new friends. The spiritual teachers spend the weekend reiterating to Mack that God doesn’t judge, God only loves, and impressing upon him the importance of forgiveness and compassion so he can move beyond the tragedy that has left him “stuck” in that shack. The dialogue is written with all the finesse of a self-help book, and the visuals are a garish technicolor explosion, but there are nuggets of wisdom that do resonate, regardless of personal belief.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violence. 2:12. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.