The best Christian movie you've never seen: Meet The Pretender

Thank the Good Lord for Amazon Prime. Without it, we'd have no access to the swathes of terrible, obscure and until-recently-deleted-from-sale movies and TV shows that have found a new home in its back catalogue. And in one corner, hiding unexpectedly, is a veritable treasure trove of faith-based movies that have faithfully waited in Hollywood storage for another chance to shine. That moment has finally arrived, and while there are so many examples of misunderstood greatness in this niche of the Amazon library, I want to draw your attention to perhaps the finest of the lot: The Pretender.

One of the most popular and widely-seen Christian films of the 1980s, The Pretender was almost certainly a hot VHS favourite at youth camps for at least the next decade. It's the simple – yet brilliant – tale of a young man who seeks to win the affections of a committed Christian girl by faking a damascene conversion. Here's how the film unfolds – but whatever you do, don't scroll down to the end before you've caught the entire 38-minute epic for yourself.

According to the synopsis, Keith is a 'worldly high school guy'. This is demonstrated by his sitting on a wall outside his school, talking to his two handsome friends about all the 'chicks' there. But since Keith has essentially worked his way through every girl in the school (which is chilling, because he's about 27) he's got literally no-one left to target apart from Dana, the pretty but extraordinary gullible Christian girl. Keith immediately hatches a plan to win her affections: he'll put aside his worldly lifestyle, and pretend to be a born-again believer.

A key part of Keith's dastardly plan is convincing the school's other notable Christian, Frank, that his conversion is legit. Frank – who he meets during a sweaty muscular workout almost certainly designed to demonstrate that Christians aren't wimps – used to be on the wrong side of the tracks just like Keith, and he's delighted to hear of his friend's supposed decision to serve the Lord. With impressively clanging subtlety, Keith finds out where Dana attends youth group (despite also being 27), and explains that he's still hanging out with his old friends because 'I haven't figured out a way to reach them yet.'

Armed with a Bible and a copy of What Christians Believe, Keith quickly swots up on the basics of the faith and starts rote-learning John 3:16, all while listening to some particularly devilish heavy guitar music. He hasn't changed one bit, the fraud.

In class, the trap is sprung. Dana 'can't help noticing' that Keith happens to have a Bible with him, largely because he decides to put it right out on his desk like a man firing a massive rescue flare. Using this brilliant trickery, and presumably with Screwtape himself pulling the strings in the background, Keith manages to bag an invite to Dana's youth fellowship the next evening. And when he does pick her up, he makes a joke that a hard rock cassette tape he finds is 'of the devil'! SHE'S COMPLETELY FALLING FOR IT.

At the youth fellowship, Keith shares his testimony (the big fat liar that he is), before impressing Dana by parroting back thoughtful lines he heard from Frank during an earlier 'discipleship conversation'. But it's all an act. Why can't she see? Will she work it out before it's too late? From her doe-eyed smile during Keith's performance, it doesn't look like it.

The story gets a bit bogged down in the middle with a subplot involving Frank in a running competition, but things hot up when Keith gets into a fight during football practice, with a young man with a quite magnificent blonde mullet. Trouble is, Frank is watching, and begins to finally suspect that Keith might not be all he appears to be.

The dramatic finale is up there with some of the great moments in cinematic history. As Frank finally learns the truth about 'The Pretender', he must rush to break up the honey trap that has been set for Dana, involving a sofa and a gentle worship music mixtape. Will he get there in time before Keith and Dana commit the unforgivable sin of reaching second base?

*SPOILER WARNING*

Of course he will, and after asking Dana to literally wait outside for the actual denouement, Frank gently rebukes Keith for his behaviour, and utters a scathing final line which I won't spoil here, but is almost enough to have Keith seriously rethinking his life. The next day at school the pair meet again (again without Dana, who is little more than a plot device if we're honest), and Frank summons up the inner strength to still reach out to Keith with the ultimate offer of Christian redemption: 'a couple of us are going bowling on Friday night if you want to come'.

Not wanting to bow to the conventions of the genre, visionary film-makers the Christiano brothers leave the finale open-ended, with Keith unsure if he wants to continue his unfulfilling life of mild domestic abuse, or turn to Jesus. To the rest of us though – and to the thousands of young people who will have watched it over the years – The Pretender delivers a powerful challenge: are we really who we say we are? Thank goodness for Amazon – without us this gem would have been lost to the world.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.

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