A wonderful showcase for the incredible talent of Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye looks at opportunism and exploitation in the flashy, and often deceiving, world of televangelism.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is not a film for everyone; while accessible and almost crowd-pleasing, it may strike some as shallow, cartoonish and over-the-top. But those who have been raised, like this reviewer, in social circles where church-going and religion are cornerstones that can never be changed let alone challenged, this is a film that speaks to what it’s like when religion is more of an opportunity than a belief, a means to gain validation rather than genuine, true faith that never seeks any sort of approval or congratulations.
At a time where religion has become a commodity, a product that requires marketing and publicity, this is a film that feels very relevant to what continues to plague religious societies that refuse to separate faith from those promoting it and rather blindly accept to glorify those shiny, charismatic figures that fill airwaves with their religious product, pulling in audiences in droves and soon turning into celebrities who are unlikely to be questioned or scrutinized.
The most interesting aspect of the film, aside from its central performance which elevates it to a more multi-dimensional examination of ‘religiousness’, is how everything that happens on screen manages to be almost comical while being, at the very same time, truly heartbreaking to see. This dual tone of presenting a colorful, joyful and seemingly fairytailish exposition of two of the most successful figures in televangelism while also creating several spaces for audiences to see through the lies they never speak, their pretentiousness they deem genuine, and the absurdity and silliness of it all is what makes the film something much more than a standard biopic.
But behind all the glamor of the cameras, the TV smiles and soothing voices of those religion traders who just want you to believe ‘everything is going to be just fine if you just believe’, is a wide spectrum of exploitation and opportunism at its best.
A character study of the rise and fall of Tammy Faye and a closer look at her psyche, The Eyes of Tammy Faye manages to be insightful just as it is relevant. More interested in Tammy’s story, Showalter rather sidelines Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) to keep the story more focused on her perspective as we see her journey come full circle.
As Tammy Faye, Chastain delivers a career-best performance, completely transforming into this larger-than-life TV figure. Without a single false note, Chastain embodies everything that made Tammy Faye such a remarkable character to watch: her ever-growing need to be loved, her aggressive ambition and intent on crashing the evangelist boys club, her absolute need to create and find her own voice and her complicated, and definitely fascinating, journey with personal faith. In the film’s quietest and loudest moments, Chastain soars with genuine emotion, fantastic vocals and a deep understanding of a character whose temporary success never truly healed her.
Bottom line: Accessible but insightful, entertaining while not devoid of interesting ideas on its mind, The Eyes of Tammy Faye dazzles and intrigues. Thanks to a remarkable Chastain and solid direction from Michael Showalter, the film will likely be a hit with audiences eager to discover the person behind the brand and the underlying agony behind the flashy smile that cameras love.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release The Eyes of Tammy Faye only in theaters on September 17, 2021.