Movie Review: The Grace Card

— One of the problems with so called “faith-based” films is a measured reluctance to engage the inconvenient ironies and complications of the world at large. It is the nature of these movies to reassure rather than challenge, and while that approach might make for useful witnessing, it inhibits the dramatic potential of a story. With most of these movies, the more interesting story is how it came to be made.

The Grace Card is the first production from Graceworks Pictures, a company started by David G. Evans, a Memphis optometrist who has produced his Nazarene church’s annual Passion play for more than 15 years. That church - Calvary, in Cordova, Tenn. - partnered with Evans to produce the project, modeling the effort on the films (Facing the Giants, Fireproof) produced by the Albany, Ga.-based “moviemaking ministry” Sherwood Pictures. Calvary Church volunteers staffed the movie’s catering, wardrobe, hair and makeup departments, while professionals handled film’s technical aspects.

It is the story of a miserable white policeman, Mac (Michael Joiner, heretofore known primarily as a “clean” comedian), who 17 years earlier lost his young son when the boy was hit by a car driven by a black drug dealer. His anger over the accident has stalled his career and alienated him from his family, especially his surviving son, who’s in danger of flunking out of school. And, of course, Mac is most angry with God, who after all allowed the worst to happen.

Philip Martin is blogging daily with reviews of movies, TV, music and more at Blood, Dirt & Angels.

Mac’s supervisor, concerned about his attitude, assigns Sam, a rising young black officer (played by Memphis native Michael Higgenbottom making his movie debut) to Mac.

Sam has been working as a policeman purely to support his family while aspiring to the ministry full time, but a recent promotion has caused him to doubt his calling.Good thing he has ol’ Grandpa George (Louis Gossett Jr.), a retired preacher and civil rights leader, waiting to give him counsel.

For the most part, The Grace Card’s volunteer crew and first-time actors acquit themselves well - Higgenbottom isn’t noticeably out of his depth here - and there are no sore-thumb extras (like the ones that afflicted Facing the Giants).

And the story is earnestly effective - Mac is a genuinely benighted figure, a black hole of a man who’d be labeled toxic if the vernacular of pop psychology were in effect here. (As it is, he has cut himself off from grace, and the religious metaphor is just as valid.)

The problem doesn’t lie in the film’s production values so much as the filmmakers’ inability to exploit the inherent grittiness of their locations and dramatic situations. Never has Memphis looked so mild and generic.

The Grace Card is not so much a bad movie as a timid one, in that it fails to fulfill the potential of its honestly notbad script, which raises some difficult questions - about race, crime and the unequal application of the law - and its denouement, however predictable, is genuinely moving. Making the movie a little tougher and truer to life (everything feels sanitized so as not to offend the imagined tender sensibilities of a stereotypical “Christian” audience) might broaden the film’s appeal. As it is, it is a remarkable achievement.

But only a so-so movie.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/25/2011

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