Sometimes God calls us to do something. And often, that call sounds like crazy talk.
Take the call that Pastor Cliff Lea believes he’s following in 2008. His church—the First Baptist Church of Leesburg, Florida—has a long history of following what Cliff believes is God’s will: Not so long ago, the church unanimously opted not to build a new sanctuary, and instead use the money to serve the community.
But now, in the teeth of the Great Recession, Cliff believes that God is calling the church again—this time to buy the Big Bass Motel and turn it into a homeless shelter. With homeless rates in the area skyrocketing, the need for one has never been greater.
But funny thing about recessions: They hit churches, too. First Baptist is $200,000 in the red. The finance committee is suggesting layoffs. And Cliff wants to spend, oh, about a million bucks to buy and fix up a broken-down motel?
Cliff insists it’s not him that’s powering this purchase. “God’s got a plan,” he says.
“So does the finance committee,” the committee’s chair tells him.
And the church’s own finances are just the first hurdle. Why, even if they had the money to buy the motel, is there any guarantee that the city would let them stick a homeless shelter right near its newly minted historic district? And what about the residents? Seems like they might not be so thrilled about a bunch of homeless moving in. Why, some think that the move might be counterproductive. One councilperson allegedly groused that, “If you feed a stray cat, you’re just going to attract more cats.”
Pastor Cliff still feels like the call is real. If God’s really in control, He’ll have a plan in mind.
But surely that plan wouldn’t involve a cynical, religiously hostile reporter, would it? Or a recovering cocaine addict? Why, that’d be just … crazy talk.
No Vacancy is based on a true story. And given that this is a Christian movie, it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that this tale has an inspiring ending. But let’s look at a few of our main characters and see what they bring to the party.
Cecil Johnson, the recovering addict, is the beneficiary of No Vacancy’s most dramatic redemption story. When we first meet him, he’s clearly stoned out of his skull—looking to kill himself to save his mother from yet more disappointment and misery. The attempt doesn’t work, though, and shortly thereafter he’s taken to a First Baptist rehab center. The film chronicles his path to sobriety, then leadership. And while Cecil would say that his recovery was all about God—and he certainly seemed to be the beneficiary for a miracle or two—recovering from addiction is no easy feat. Cecil works hard to get and stay clean, and throughout the film he shows his gratitude to both God and the church.
Cecil also becomes a prime tool in bringing around Brandi Michaels, the cynical reporter we mentioned. Brandi, a longtime reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, feels like an outcast when she’s banished to Florida’s rural lake county. She’s certainly not interested in writing fluff pieces or feel-good stories. But as she talks with Cecil and others, Brandi realizes that what First Baptist is doing feels different. As she digs deeper, Brandi becomes more sympathetic to the church’s ideals—becoming almost an advocate for the proposed shelter in her own journalistic way. And when it appears that her story on the church and its shelter might be delayed, she pushes for the piece to be published on time—hoping that her article might show the rest of the community what she herself has seen.
And obviously, Pastor Cliff deserves a bit of praise, as well. He seems a man of both principle and faith throughout the film, and yet he’s a realist, too. “We are very much living in the world of ‘if’,” he tells Brandi.
Which brings us to the movie’s less obvious but just as notables: The people who made that “if” a reality. We see dozens of people give gifts and donations, and rally behind the church, as the story crescendos to its conclusion. God’s plans, after all, often require our involvement.
This is an explicitly Christian story, and it’s difficult to separate its spiritual elements from the rest of the film. But let’s give you a handful of overtly spiritual moments.
We frequently see Pastor Cliff’s favorite saying inscribed behind his desk: “Trust God, no matter what.” And so he does. When the finance committee tells him that the church should hunker down as the recession rages on, Cliff says, “I don’t think I’ve read anything in the Scriptures about ‘hunkering down’.” When the motel’s current owners tell him he has less than a month to raise the money needed to buy the place, Cliff says, “If God can create the earth in six days, He can buy a motel in 30.” And when city bigwigs tell him that the motel couldn’t be zoned as a church, Cliff says that the motel is “exactly what [the church is] supposed to do.”
We don’t see much direct supernatural involvement in No Vacancy. But Cecil’s turnaround involves a possible exception.
After his quasi-suicide attempt, Cecil meets a man named Claude Anderson, who buys him breakfast and offers to take him to the church’s rehab center.
“I don’t know whether I’m ready for help,” Cecil admits.
“Truth is, only you and God know that,” Claude tells him. “You make the first step. I think he’ll help you make the next one.”
Claude tells Cecil that he’ll call to check on him. But when he doesn’t, Cecil does some investigation of his own—calling the construction company where Claude said he worked (and his truck seemed to verify). But when he calls, Cecil is told that no one named Claude Anderson has ever worked for the outfit. Cecil comes to suspect the man was an angel.
That story is the first wedge that is driven between Brandi’s own relationship to faith—which, as the movie begins, is really, really bad. “I despise organize religion,” she says, and we’re told that she’s often mocked church before. When her editor tells her to look into the story of Leesburg First Baptist, she scoffs—knowing that the Southern Baptists were originally founded as a denomination that morally justified slavery. But as she sees the good work the church is doing, she softens. And by the end of the film, we see her walk into a sanctuary and pray—sincerely—for both First Baptist and for her own troubled family.
We see Cecil’s mom frantically pray to God to save her son. We hear one man (speaking against the church’s plans during a city council meeting) say that all churches are “parasites” because they don’t pay taxes. (Brandi snidely tells Pastor Cliff after the meeting that, “If your faith is supposed to move mountains, I’d recommend a steam shovel.”)
Cecil talks about “shacking up with an older woman” when he was about 13. The law put a stop to the relationship eventually. We hear him mention another woman or two, but he admits that his real love, for much of his life, was crack cocaine. Brandi gives herself a pep talk in the mirror. “You have the body of a 30-year-old,” she says, but quickly revises it to “46-and-a-half.”
In a flashback, Cecil is tricked into going to a junkyard (filled with old cars and planes) with a handful of his “friends.” They turn out to be anything but: In what appears to be an act of racial hatred, the three white guys beat Cecil horrifically—snidely suggesting that they plan to toss him in a canal for the alligators.
Another flashback finds Cecil in a “juke joint,” confronting a man who run drugs for him and demanding the money he’s owed. The man gives him payment in the form of a slug to the jaw. Cecil leaves the bar and returns with a gun—shooting his assailant (and earning a prison sentence).
A woman and her two girls are kicked out of their living situation and are forced to sleep in a park. A man, apparently with all sorts of ill-intent, looks poised to attack the small family before a patrol vehicle scares him off. A car nearly hits someone lying in the middle of the road.
The drug and alcohol use we see here—which is significant—isn’t designed to romanticize or excuse substance use or abuse. Just the opposite, in fact.
As mentioned, Cecil is a recovering drug addict. We hear a great deal about that past and see (in flashback) some drug paraphernalia. He also frequents various bars and alcoholic dives where people drink—sometimes quite heavily.
Brandi’s brother, Tony, is an alcoholic, and we see what that addiction has done to his life. He can’t find a job (not that he’s looking particularly hard), and he begs Brandi for money to pay his electric bill. Brandi tells Tony that he reminds her of their own alcoholic father. And she worries that Tony is literally drinking himself to death.
[Spoiler Warning: Brandi eventually encourages/forces Tony to go to one of First Baptist’s drug treatment centers.]
Brandi’s mother is dealing with Alzheimer’s. And when the reporter goes to visit her mom and tells her that “it’s your Brandi,” her mother responds, “You know I don’t drink! Especially Brandy!”
We see and hear about racial discrimination. The attack on Cecil was apparently racially motivated, and we learn that the encounter left deep wounds on Cecil’s psyche. He confesses to Pastor Cliff that he doesn’t trust white people very much anymore.
Later, someone tells Cecil that, “if you’re going to get anywhere in life, you’re going to have to stop seeing color.” While the comment is well-meaning (it comes with an incredibly extravagant gift) and Cecil accepts it gracefully, it feels a bit patronizing. And, given the real racial wounds that Cecil has dealt with, that comment feels like an unrealistic attempt to wave away Cecil’s wariness as if by magic word. My guess is that this well-intentioned encounter may rub some in the audience the wrong way.
No Vacancy, which hits theaters for an early May run courtesy of Fathom Events, is a powerful illustration of faith that can move mountains—and that the foolishness of God is truly wiser than the wisdom of man. Based on a true story, the film features some familiar faces (Blade Runner’s Sean Young; Lois & Clark’s Dean Cain; War Room’s T.C. Stallings), resonant messages and some quality storytelling.
I almost long for a sequel. Not only because this is an entertaining movie but because it feels like there’s more to be said.
No Vacancy gives us an inspiring first step—the equivalent of Simon Peter and Andrew dropping their nets when Jesus tells them to follow. And obviously, following the call of God is indeed both wonderful and inspiring. We should be all more mindful of God’s call in our own lives, and to be willing to step out on faith as Pastor Cliff does.
But for me, what happens after that motel is purchased and converted is equally important: The hard work being done in the church’s drug rehab centers and homeless shelters is, most assuredly, more grim and gritty. The miracles there would likely feel smaller, and sometimes offset by setbacks and hardships and the messy realities of life.
I think, again, of Simon Peter. Follow me, Jesus told him, and he was surely swept up in the excitement of the call. And then, he realized as he trudged through Judea mile after mile—suffering from lack of food and lack of sleep and sometimes hostility and danger—what that call really involved.
A call from God, and our answer to that call is, yes, the end of one story. But it’s the beginning of another.
But, of course, before that second story can begin, the call must be answered. The incredible hand of God must move. And that’s what No Vacancy shows effectively. It shows a pastor, and a church, determined to follow God’s call, no matter how crazy it might sound to others. It shows us how improbable characters can serve God’s purposes—despite their own past failings and, sometimes, despite their own unbelief. It reminds us that, as Pastor Cliff’s sign tells us, we should “trust God, no matter what.” Why? Because He’s shown Himself to be so trustworthy. He works in our lives—sometimes in spite of ourselves.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.