Faith-based cinema has been on the steady rise for a while now. Films like Heaven is for Real, God’s Not Dead and Miracles from Heaven have proven to be extremely lucrative, and Hollywood has taken notice, bringing what was once a distinctly niche genre into the mainstream. These films have managed to pull in big name actors such as Jennifer Garner and Octavia Spencer, and have big box office numbers to match: the most recent entry into the genre, The Shack, made over 92 million worldwide. They’re films that can often feel like a breezy two-hour-long church service, preaching the divine power of a God who works miracles in the face of trying circumstances.
Free in Deed is the much-needed antithesis to those films.
Based on the true story of a faith healing session gone wrong, the film centers around Melva (Edwina Findley), a single mother who lives with her two children in an underprivileged part of Memphis. Her son has a particularly advanced form of autism that causes him to have intense bouts of self-harm, and medical professionals have been of little to no help. Desperate for a cure, Melva finds herself frequenting a local storefront church in search of guidance. There, she’s rapturously welcomed; her son’s ailment becomes the church’s collective problem to solve. Fellow church-goers go over to Melva’s house to try and rid the space of evil objects, which include a toy lightsaber (“You do not want the Force in this house; it represents a different type of power,” one cautions her). Finally, she’s not alone in her struggle. But the most avid support comes from Abe (David Harewood), a devout janitor who believes himself to be a faith healer — an alliance that will have tragic repercussions.
As Abe, Harewood plays the role with the reticence of a deeply haunted man who keeps to himself. Quiet and brooding, he’s constantly trying to come to terms with past transgressions and desperately clings to his faith in God to survive. We believe that he wants so badly to be right about his healing abilities, and that understanding on the part of the viewer makes the events that unfold all the more painful to watch. Findley is equally memorable as a mother who will do anything to save her child. We witness every shade of hope, fear and desperation cross her face as she allows the situation to spiral out of her control.
Director Jake Mahaffy conducts the film with long stretches of quiet that are punctuated by bursts of auditory hysteria. It’s a jarring technique, one that is not unlike the sensations that Melva’s son experiences during the chaotic faith healing sessions he’s subjected to. It’s thoroughly unpleasant and entirely necessary.
During one of those very sessions, the camera sits in the pews, passively capturing the horrid scene. We’re on the outside looking in, peering at a dingy room filled with screaming adults forcibly holding down a child while in distress. In this moment, believers and non-believers can agree: Mahaffy has created a searing image of a place God – and the institutions we all depend on — has most certainly abandoned.
Free in Deed opens in theaters on September 8 and will be available on VOD and iTunes on September 12.