“God only gives us as much suffering as we can bear,” is just one of the very untrue, but deeply held beliefs that characterize Jake Mahaffy‘s evocation of a borderline unbearable true-life tragedy, “Free In Deed.” A bracing, bruising corrective to the “faith-based filmmaking” movement, the New Zealand-born director’s third film, set in and shot on location in Tennessee, tells the tortured real-life story of a 2003 faith healing attempt that led to the death of a child. While the conclusion by the ending — that no merciful God could possibly be responsible for such cruelty, so He’s either unjust, indifferent, or non-existent — feels undeniably clear, the film is refreshingly free of the kind of judgments that a wholehearted atheist might make of those who believe. Instead, faith is portrayed as an understandable last place of refuge for those who have been abandoned by the mechanisms of human society, a literal hail mary move for men and women with no other options left.
It’s fitting then that the majority of the proceedings do not take place in vaulted cathedrals, but in makeshift, strip-lit storefront churches, cheap motels, and impersonal hospitals where low-priority cases, such as poor, black, single mothers whose autistic children have cut themselves, get the bare minimum of attention before being dismissed. The mother in question is Melva (“Middle of Nowhere“‘s Edwina Findlay) and her afflicted, violent, uncommunicative son is Benny (RaJay Chandler, in an astonishing juvenile performance). Melva is approaching the end of her tether trying to care for the self-harming, volatile Benny and his little sister Etta, at the same time that tortured soul Abraham (David Harewood), who attends her church, starts to believe that he may have divinely inspired healing powers.
It’s never made exactly clear why it is that “Brother Abraham” has the kind of spiritual torment that leads him to petition for salvation so repeatedly — in a darkly absurd moment, one of his preachers requests that he stops asking to be saved so often, because once you’re saved, you’re saved and to continually want to be reborn in Christ is “embarrassing.” But Harewood’s excellent performance reads volumes of history, barely hinted at in his confessions to the congregation of having hurt people in the past, into Abraham’s unending search for solemn religious ecstasy. Meanwhile, Melva’s reasons for embracing the same sparsely attended yet raucous services may be more pragmatic — the support she finds there is in direct contrast to the indifference she gets elsewhere, plus she feels a growing attraction to Abraham — but they are no less human and relatable for that. Findlay’s extraordinary embodiment of Melva as a thoroughly good woman and a loving mother in the face of utterly impossible circumstances (her helplessness when Benny won’t stop pounding his head against the wall or when he refuses to take his pills is genuinely heartbreaking) means we completely understand her actions, even if they run counter to everything we might believe. She is a woman who so deserves kindness that we cannot judge her for accepting it from dubious sources.
This is an ugly world. The motel Abraham lives in is partly derelict at the back, the dirty pool filled with rubble and broken furniture. Yet it’s shot with a meticulous and almost lyrical eye by DP Ava Berkofsky, never more so than when evoking the fervor of religious euphoria that occurs during the loud, often strident services. Mahaffy populates the cast around his three exemplary principals with non-professional locals, lending an air of extreme authenticity. And it is genuinely painful to watch at times especially during the deeply upsetting ersatz “exorcisms” performed on the thrashing, screaming child. The physicality of these moments, which the gentle phrase “laying on of hands” scarcely describe, is brutal, almost medieval — evoking practices lifted straight from the days of witchcraft and superstition and plunked down wholesale into the modern, supposedly civilized world.
“Free In Deed” is a difficult film to stomach as a non-believer, and would presumably be even more so for those of a religious bent. But its deepest condemnation is reserved not for the faithful, but for a society that can foster the conditions for this story to occur. From the official who shuts down a makeshift soup kitchen because it doesn’t have a permit from the health authority, to the child services officer who calls on Melva because a complaint has been issued against Benny for being “inappropriately dressed” and “shouting,” to the doctors, nurses and teachers who are themselves too harried and busy to give Benny the attention he needs — every interaction with an authority figure here serves to make us understand Melva and Abraham’s misguided actions all the better. The supreme irony being, of course, that it is only when tragedy strikes that officialdom shows any interest: that’s when law enforcement gets involved and the full might of the judicial system is suddenly brought to bear on these marginalized, struggling people.
This small, slow-paced film, deeply upsetting and narrow in scope, is a hard watch. In refusing to offer any easy answers, and in running precisely counter to the sickly angels-among-us narratives of the current, growing faith-based filmmaking movement, it’s an even harder sell. But Mahaffy’s uncompromising approach, and the quality of its performances, make it a rare and valuable testament: to the terrible danger of believing in miracles, and to the cruelty of a world that might make such belief necessary. [B+/A-]