You may have seen this story play out before: a man with a troubled past, tries to turn his life around but continues to associate himself with shady people. He meets a wholesome, beautiful woman who inspires him to be a better man. But trials, hardships and ghosts of the past make it extremely difficult for our leading man to live in the light.

While the story has been a recurring one in movies, it takes real creativity and performance to make such a common story come to life each time its told. I’m in Love with a Church Girl is a film with plenty of potential, falling short in some areas but making up for it in message.

The film stars rapper Jeff “Ja Rule” Atkins (Rush Hour, The Fast and the Furious) as retired drug lord, Miles Montego and Adrienne Bailon (The Cheetah Girls, Coach Carter) as church girl Vanessa Leon. Miles is unbelievably rich but his wealth has come at a cost. While he has fully retired from his past criminal profession, he is still tied to it through his tight connection to his friends. 

Miles meets Vanessa, who is unlike any of the other girls he has ever dated. A devoted church girl, Vanessa falls into Miles’s arms quickly and the two become inseparable.

Of course, this would not be your typical boy-meets-girl movie if a few roadblocks weren’t thrown in the mix, and the new couple struggles with Miles’s past, a mother’s death, a car accident and more. These struggles test the relationship of not only Miles and Vanessa, but of their relationship with God as well.

Co-starring in the film are Stephen Baldwin (The Usual Suspects), the Drug Enforcement Agency officer determined to take Miles in, as well as Michael Madsen (Kill Bill) and Vincent Pastore (“The Sopranos”). Galley Molina, the writer and producer, based the film on his own real-life experiences after a spell in prison. Molina stars in the film as well, as the jeans-wearing, Lamborghini-driving church pastor who offers plenty of advice to the new couple.

Produced by Reverence Gospel Media and directed by Steve Race, I’m in Love with a Church Girl is a devoutly Christian film with determinedly evangelical themes. Critics and audiences are starkly divided on this film. Critics seem to hate the fact that an orchestra (directed by Bruce Fowler) plays the entire movie despite the fact that a rapper stars and the church is progressive. 

They think there’s not enough drama or action to keep audiences entertained. Or, as the LA Times argues, they are concerned that “it is wholesome — more so than it wants to be, what with its sterile attempt at portraying a gangsta lifestyle — [and] it’s aggressively evangelistic, peddling a specific strain of Christianity.” Audience reviews so far though seem to be positive. 

The “powerful message” of the film hits home for the mainly-Christian audiences. The real-life experiences portrayed by the actors seem to encourage other Christians that their own lives can be changed just as Vanessa and Miles’s are.

While the acting isn’t entirely stellar in the film, Ja Rule and Adrienne seem to have some great chemistry and leave audiences ready to see more. Ja Rule himself was jailed before he began work on the movie, and brings a particular experience to his role.

Overall the movie is worth a try. If your church is looking for a special event to bring the congregation together, this may be an option for you. Audiences of all ages seem to enjoy the film – teens, parents and grandparents alike.

While it’s probably not a fantastic date-night movie, if you’re looking for a way to renew your faith in God and one another, I’m in Love with a Church Girl is probably a good choice. The film is rated PG for some violence, some suggestive content and brief language.

The two-hour film was released in theaters across the country on October 18 and will be on Blu-ray and DVD by January 14, 2014.

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