The mysterious and intriguing Amish community has been great fodder for movies, offering a haven for dramatic license and stories of longing and denial. Their simple, close-to-the-earth customs and beliefs often seem in direct contrast to our flashy 4G ways; how could they not want to leave the plain pine-board walls for free wifi and fast-food burritos? “The Shunning,” directed by Michael Landon Jr. and based on the Beverly Lewis bestselling novel, offers the compelling story of a young girl torn between the modern world and the Old Order.
Set in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pa. (with a convincing North Carolina filming locale), the pic eloquently looks at the constant culture clashes of a world within a world. Life in the sheltered community of Hickory Hollow is based in ritual and on strict rules of conduct. Plain is valued over fancy and even a simple item like a zipper or top-40 song is considered the height of vanity and a road to ruin.
Katie Lapp (Danielle Panabaker) finds comfort in her family and beliefs, but often turns to memories of her first love, Daniel (David Topp), who, despite laws to the contrary, secretly taught her to play guitar. Three years after Daniel’s sudden death, Katie has resigned herself to marry the widowed Bishop of the community, but can’t get Daniel or “English” (non-Amish) music out of her heart.
Before the wedding, Laura (Sherry Stringfield), a stranger, arrives in a stretch limo searching for an Amish woman by first name only. She leaves a message with the town midwife that sets off a soul-searching chain of events.
Through Lewis’ story, writer Chris Easterly has set up an ersatz “Sleepless in Seattle” scenario in which two main characters spend most of the movie apart — yet the mere knowledge of one another has profound consequences.
Easterly’s adaptation edits out some meandering subplots without losing continuity.
Director Michael Landon Jr. deftly avoids depicting Hickory Hollow in stereotypes. Despite its arcane rules, especially for women, the town is not presented as an unpleasant place to live — which makes Katie’s decisions all the more difficult. Young people growing up Amish, allowed to sing only from the hymnals, eventually discover the realities of modern life and the incongruity of their own, making their adolescent journey more difficult than most.
Panabaker does a great job conveying a love of family yet an unyielding desire to get at the truth. Her rebellion isn’t disrespectful of the Amish life, but rather an unshakable determination to follow her heart. Although her Pennsylvania Dutch accent waffles a bit, overall it’s a convincing performance for the former Disney star. (It’s probably no coincidence that with her plain clothes and lace cap, she resembles a young Kelly McGillis.)
Stringfield’s appears only briefly, and one gets the feeling her character’s story (and that of a few others) could be expanded in other installments should Hallmark adapt the two other novels in Lewis’ trilogy.