I find myself introducing a great many of my reviews of late with disclaimers, explaining why I am predisposed to dislike films that I nonetheless enjoy. This is either good news for over-achieving niche films or bad news for my critical faculties. Given that reviewers tend to get more jaded than standard-compromised over time, I’m hopeful that it’s the former.
Last week, I was unexpectedly impressed with Pure Flix's In the Blink of an Eye; this week it's Pure Flix's Sarah's Choice, an earnest pro-life holiday offering with possibly the most unappealing box art I've seen in a decade. The film stars CCM musician Rebecca St. James, who contributed to several of the Left Behind film soundtracks and appeared as "Buck's Assistant" in the original Left Behind. Sarah's Choice is also directed by a relative novice. Can you see why I was not particularly hopeful?
Christian Niche Market
Just recently, I was talking with a colleague about the problems of the Christian niche market. Unlike many of my fellow critics, I don't have a problem with the idea of niches, whether it's the arthouse niche, the LGBT niche, the slasher niche, or the Christian niche. Films conceived and produced with a specific audience in mind are not by definition bad—or, by definition, good, lest one think that all arthouse films are shoo-ins for award consideration. This is always the question: niche considerations aside, are the films any good? My theory is that most cinema designed for the Christian market has historically been developed by filmmakers who wouldn't know Bergman from Fellini, instead having been raised on TBN, Left Behind, Little House on the Prairie, and Grizzly Adams. And maybe Walker, Texas Ranger. A filmmaker with such a pedigree of influence would not only be likely to make a poor film for the Christian niche; the result would be poor regardless of the target market.
Now, whether I'm right or not about Christian filmmakers in general, Sarah's Choice feels to me like director Chad Kapper has made good use of his decade directing commercials and corporate films, studying his craft and thinking seriously about what makes a film entertaining and compelling. In short, this does not at all play like a generic film churned out by a CCM-clone film industry. In fact, when the film concluded, I told my wife, "I think this is a movie I could look forward to seeing every holiday season." A Christmas classic about abortion? Well, yes.
A Simple Story
The story is very simple and doesn't warrant a lot of synopsizing or commentary. St. James plays Sarah, a single and upwardly-mobile junior advertising exec whose life is nonetheless falling apart at the seams. She desperately needs a promotion at work in order to take care of a host of financial disasters. When she unexpectedly gets pregnant by her shiftless quasi-live-in boyfriend Matt, she has to, naturally, make some tough choices. And given the source of and target market for this film, her ultimate choice is, shall we say, less than surprising.
The film also exercises what has now become established as a Christmas-film tradition of sorts. Through a series of foretold visions, Sarah is given the chance to see what the future holds if she opts for what (seems to her) the least-attractive option. Yet Kapper eschews most of the clichés associated with this tradition, and his approach is both satisfying and original. I won't spoil it for you by describing it.
The first thing that jumped out at me about the film was the technical excellence. Not only does Kapper avoid the typical mistakes that betray a first-time feature director—and the showiness which is often the other option for debut-directors of some competence—every sequence is staged with the touch of a veteran: shot composition, lighting, cutting, coverage, scene structure, props that don't feel borrowed from some high school, settings that feel like part of the real world... real Ohio weather. By the time we get to Kapper's stunning final scene, it all feels genuinely earned. Kapper's use of soundtrack music and ambient noise also deserves special mention. I haven't been as impressed by audio design in an indie film in a long, long time.
The technical merits of the film allow certain performances to absolutely shine. St. James is a perfect choice for the title role, and though she seems to have problems mustering tears with a camera running she demonstrates an excellent emotional range here in a completely believable fashion. She not only handles the demands of an unwanted-pregnancy drama, she also pulls off the visions-of-the-future sequences like a seasoned veteran.
Julian Bailey is also the perfect foil for Sarah as Matt. I bought him 100% as a slacker who's in the bad habit of skating by with quick-witted patter and penny-ante schemes. He's appropriately cool when finding creative ways to goof off at work, convincingly nonplused when he realizes that the wheels are falling off of his easy-street dreams, and he's suitably sweaty when it dawns on him that Sarah's not the only one with tough choices to make. I'd watch this TV veteran in just about anything; he shines here in what appears to be his first lead role in a feature film, of which he makes the absolute most.
First-Rate Supporting Performances
The majority of the supporting performances are first-rate, too, leaving aside what feel like a couple of marketing-driven cameos. I assume that some of the peripheral bits are played by veterans of commercial work in Kapper's North Canton, Ohio place of business. But even Christian-film vets like Stacy Keanan make memorable appearances as well. I found myself thinking, "Where did they find another Australian actress to play Sarah’s sister?" They didn't, of course; Keanan simply inhabits her role as Denise.
I also have to compliment the script for not entirely demonizing pro-choice advocacy. Yes, one clinician says stupid things like, "Would you let a wart destroy the life you have planned for yourself?" But the line isn't delivered with a hint of malice or telegraphed idiocy. Better yet, a conversation between Denise and Sarah's pretty-much holier-than-thou mother delivers a message of true compassion for those faced with difficult real-world choices. And in the same vein, the conclusion of the film is stirringly hopeful.
I found Sarah's Choice thoughtful, engaging, and highly enjoyable—in much the same way that Bottle Shock might be enjoyed by those with no interest in wine, or Bowling for Columbine can nonetheless be appreciated by gunowners. Kapper plays to his audience, yes—but not in a way that will alienate those who are not sold on Sarah's particular choice.
Sarah's Choice is unrated—which kind of surprises me. But for thematic content, I'd offer a PG-13. If kids are going to watch a drama about unwanted pregnancy, I think it's wise to have parents around to talk about it with afterward.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Sarah's Choice.
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.