It's really, really hard to make me cry. As a film critic, I've seen hundreds (thousands?) of would-be tear-jerkers that left me skeptical at best. So, when a film brings me to tears in the first ten minutes, I know I'm going to love it. It means that the story is compelling, the acting is excellent, and the writing and filming are done with skill and savvy.
Producers Jason Atkins and J. Wesley Legg settled for nothing less than the best in the film Unconditional. It is the debut film for their company, Harbinger Media, and boy, am I looking forward to more from them! If this is their standard for quality, I suspect that they will quickly rank among other top companies whose films I usually trust to be good (Scott Free, Relativity Media, Bad Robot, Dreamworks, etc). Moreover, writer/director Brent McCorkle is one to keep your eye on. Film is never a one-man show, but the core of the story is brought to life first by the writer, and then the director. Since McCorkle is both for this film, well, enough said.
Unconditional tells the true story of Joe Bradford (played wonderfully by Michael Ealy). His life story is so amazing and beautiful that it would be a shame to give it away in this review. So let's just say that his collides with the story of his childhood best friend, Samantha Crawford (also played with excellence by Lynn Collins). After losing touch for many years, the two are brought together at a hospital where he comes to visit a little girl she has rescued. Though, it could be said that the little girl rescued her, given the state of mind she was in when the accident happened. Her husband had been killed in the very same neighborhood, and her grief was unbearable to the point of wanting to take her own life. Joe and the little girl's brother, Macon (Kwesi Boakye), manage to coerce her into a visit the next day, and the story begins. Her interactions with Joe and the disadvantaged children he cares for change her perspective forever.
This is the strangest kind of film for me because as a screenwriter, I can see how the pieces fit together, sometimes too perfectly. And it doesn’t bother me in the least. It reminds me of the movie Serendipity, where providence keeps bringing together these pieces that fit neatly together. But instead of feeling contrived, they are like icing petals on a simple cake. Those perfectly scripted details make the film more fantastic because we are already so invested in the characters and the story. In this film, it might be the harsh nature of the events the characters are facing that make these icing pieces so welcome. Particularly as believers, we love to see God moving in the midst of disparaging situations. To me, these elements seem less like contrived circumstances and more like God's handiwork. And that is goodstorytelling…
I loved that the characters were slow to change, though the events in the story weren't slow. It's simply that by the time we meet the characters, they have been wrestling with their demons for sometime. The amount of trauma and grief that each of their circumstances bring is enormous. So the fact that their breakthroughs have been a year or two underway gives credibility to their on-screen transformations.
The ending is superb, inspirational in every way. To see the hand of God moving in a life and know that it's a true story is enough to start with. But add allegory and symbolism within the framework of a well told, well-acted story, and you have a recipe for something truly wonderful. This movie actually prompted me to action. My kids and I started a company/ministry which has been riddled with technological issues over the last year. But this film helped make up my mind to do whatever it takes to get that program back on track and help at-risk children. I can't say that about any other movie I've seen in the last few years.
And just in case you weren't already involved somewhere, the filmmakers direct you to their website where you can find out how to get in touch with community organizations at the end of the movie. I went to the website to check it out and found ten organizations in my state alone. Just click on your state, find an organization that your heart is drawn to, and jump in with both feet. I love, love, love the pro-healing, proactive attitude of this film from the very start to the very end. Unconditional is a must-see. If it opens in theaters in my area, I will pay to see it again opening weekend, just to support the filmmakers. You'll be glad if you do the same.
Talking Points with Kids:
Ages 0-5: Not recommended for these ages, but if they do watch… Do you know anyone who doesn't get to eat three meals a day? Do you know children who don't have either a mother or father? Are kids ever treated badly in your school because they are different than the others (like Joe)? What can you do tomorrow to show these people God's love?
Ages 6-12: Still may not be age appropriate for this group, but if they watch…Same questions as above or these: We often hear of children in other countries who don't have enough to eat, but starvation is also a problem in America. In what parts of your city do these families live? (It may be worth a field trip to visit some of them) What would you be willing to do for these families (donate to or volunteer at a food bank, volunteer for an organization in your church or city, toys for tots, school supplies, etc.Or check out Unconditional's online resources for options in your city)? If these parts of town make you uncomfortable or fearful, do you think Jesus would have been afraid too?
Ages 12+: Would losing a loved one make you feel suicidal like Samantha? Why or why not? If you did suddenly find yourself feeling suicidal, who (besides a parent) would you trust enough to call for help?Joe could tell Samantha was depressed, and when he didn't believe she would come see him, he asked again. Do you think this kind of persistence makes a difference to someone who is ready to end their life? Are you prepared to persist with someone in your life who appears to be hurting? What is another way you can offer them hope in Christ if they reject a conversation about salvation and Christ's love for them?