This past Thursday I was invited, as a local ministry leader, to view an advanced screening of a film that will be released in September called Unconditional. The writer/director is from Arlington, TX and now lives in Nashville, where the movie is set. It is inspired by true events and even (at least in the screening) has a short segment at the end with the real-life person one of the main characters is based on.
Those of you who know me are at this point asking yourselves, “Why in the world would Kevin agree to see an openly Christian film?” And to answer that, I have to say… I dunno. Tickets were free and it was something to do. As some insight into my perspective, faith-based films entered my awareness with Flywheel, Sherwood Church/Pictures first film. They have since given us Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous, all of which have suffered from poor acting, a lack of budget, and cheesy writing which is not especially connected with what I like to call “the real world”. Like much of the Christian music industry (another rant for another time), I am not a fan of “faith-based” films in general. My main problem is that they do not tackle real problems in a real manner and they tend to shove the “church-answer ending” down your throat at the end. As a believer, even I check out at these moments because it’s just too much. So, all of that to say I wasn’t expecting much from Unconditional. I am happy to share with you that I was very pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the directing was very, very solid. There was no distinct style to it, like a Nolan or Scorsese, but it was good, solid directing that turned out a good film. Think Peter Berg or F. Gary Gray, whom you likely don’t know by name but have enjoyed a film from…
Secondly, the lead performance were great. Lyn Collins (John Carter, The number 23) and Michael Ealy (Seven Pounds, 2Fast 2Furious) were convincing and relatable. Some of the supporting roles fell a little flat, but for the most part they were solid as well. Surprising all of the child actors were solid, a place I’ve seen many lower-budget “indie” films fall flat, especially when there’s this many of them.
I felt the story was very well done. The story follows a woman who is devastated and loses her faith after her husband is violently murdered. In the opening scene she has returned to the place of his death to take her own life – instantly I knew this film wasn’t going to shy away from reality or tough issues. She is interrupted and through a course of events reconnects with her childhood best friend. Through the new relationship and the connections it brings we see completely unconditional love can change a life and how it can redeem any situation. All this in a way that is real – people still, to the very end, struggle with dark, hurtful, sinful things – and without ever getting real preachy. The viewer is shown God’s truth without ever feeling condemned or judged for not believing the same way.
All told, I really enjoyed the movie – but it is not without it’s warts. There are things that set it apart from the “normal” Hollywood fare movie goers are used to.
First of all, the ending kinda blew it for me. I mean, the climax and the resolution were 90% good, but then the narration kicked in over a montage of “wrap-up” footage and I could have told you down to the exact timing what shots were coming and in what order, including the final “zoom up through a raindrop into the clouds and fade to black”. For a film that had spent so much time expressing a belief system in a believable way, it fell back on it’s Christian roots at the end with a cheesy, predictable summation.
Secondly – the color grading was pretty inconsistent. Now, most normal movie goers pay no attention to color grading – in fact, when I’ve pointed out the teal/orange phenomenon to most people they hate me because they had no idea it existed. However, in Unconditional, normal movie goers will notice. Contrast is inconsistent from one shot to another – one shot seems washed out and the next is high contrast, all in the same scene and normally when going from a wide to a close-up cutaway. There are also several shots, seemingly in every scene that is in low light, that has a shot with blacks pulled up so far that they are distractingly noisy (like the trailer park scene in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice). I’m not sure if this was just poor exposure being corrected in post, but considering it was shot on RED cameras in what I would assume to be a digital RAW format, they would have to be severely underexposed to be that bad. On top of that, highlights through out the entire movie (including the under-exposed scenes) were blown-out/over exposed in the harshest, ugliest way possible… There was no gentle knee into the highlights, they were just gone.
Thirdly and following close behind the poorly exposed shots, there were some obviously blown focus shots (no discernible object was in sharp focus), which only happened a couple of times in the movie, but really stands out from Hollywood fare that does not allow shots like that in a final edit. That said, with a generation of DSLR shooters coming up, people are becoming less and less sensitive to focus being perfect or even attempted at all… Just check out a local short film festival if you think I’m exaggerating.
Now, that seems like a long list (and much more indepth) compared to what I liked in the film – but let me re-iterate, I really enjoyed this film. It was heartwarming and very well done. The reason my criticisms sound strong and are fairly detailed is there may still be time to fix these before a national release in September, which means the few small issues the film has could be remedied and this film could stand on it’s merits as a film with the “normal” Hollywood fare and wouldn’t have to make excuses because it’s a “faith-based film”. This one actually has a chance at connecting with people and I’d like to see that happen.
Hopefully when Unconditional hits theaters in the fall it will pull in a decent crowd opening weekend and will be met with favorable reviews. I’m rooting for this one and in fact, I’ll take my wife to see it opening weekend so we can help them out with something other than my nit-picky review of an early screening…