The next time you hear anyone dismiss all faith-based films as too heavy-handedly preachy and white-bread squeaky-clean for their taste, point them toward “The Grace of Jake,” a confidently measured and arrestingly low-key tale of redemption in a sleepy Southern hamlet where the citizenry is engagingly ordinary, occasionally profane, and matter-of-factly multicultural. Director-screenwriter Chris Hicky makes a most promising transition from award-winning music videos to indie dramatic features with this Kickstarter-funded labor of love, which he filmed on location in his hometown of Forrest City, Ark. — identified here as Palestine — and cast with a neatly balanced mix of familiar faces, up-and-comers and bit-playing nonprofessionals.
The leisurely paced yet consistently involving narrative focuses primarily on Jake Haynes (Jake La Botz), a taciturn ex-convict and unaccomplished musician who’s introduced while on his way back home to Palestine to see his long-estranged father, Henry (Michael Beck, the erstwhile hunk from “The Warriors” and “Xanadu”). The reunion isn’t likely to be a happy one: Jake blames his white-haired dad, a still-active crop-duster pilot, for driving his mother out of town decades earlier. And he aims to settle overdue accounts with a pistol.
Before he can get the old man in his sights, however, Jake is caught off-guard by the reception he receives from unexpectedly accepting strangers. A chance encounter with Booster (Andrew Walker), a gentle giant who works for Henry, leads his becoming — reluctantly — the sole white member of the congregation at a church led by Rev. Lovely (Dorien Wilson), a multi-tasker who also operates a funeral parlor catering to an African-American clientele. The first time Jake is pressured into singing solo at a service, Rev. Lovely believes he has found a miraculous way to increase his diminishing flock. Jake is ambivalent about being a regular performer at a church, and not just because he has murder on his mind. On the other hand, he can’t help noticing the reverend’s fetching daughter, Nicole (Jordin Sparks). And she can’t help noticing him right back, even though she’s the apple of Booster’s eye.
Hicky presents welcome surprises throughout “The Grace of Jake,” often introducing plot developments that would lead to melodramatic outcomes in more conventional films. A possible romantic conflict is resolved in a peaceful manner, the promise of a deus ex machina recording contract remains unfulfilled (or at very least delayed), and an ominously ingratiating redneck mechanic (Lew Temple) actually proves to be honest, and nonviolent, in his boasting. Characters that might have devolved into caricatures elsewhere — most notably, Maurice (Ravi Kapoor), the openly gay Indian expat who operates the motel where Jake resides — are rendered with humor and grace. Indeed, without ever making a big deal about it, Hicky sustains underlying themes of acceptance and reconciliation that are all the more resonant for being sounded so casually.
Rich with local color and small-town ambiance, “The Grace of Jake” occasionally recalls the early works of David Gordon Green with its languid accumulation of revealing details captured sometimes dreamily, sometimes brutally, by cinematographer Blake McClure. La Botz (an actor-singer-songwriter whose affecting rendition of his Bob Dylanesque “Everybody’s Got to Fall Down” is heard under the closing credits) makes an impressively nuanced transition from cynical depths to higher ground. And the supporting players, including Chad Morgan as a wary single mother who really doesn’t want to warm to Jake, offer performances well attuned to the story and the storytelling.
Call this faith-based entertainment that even skeptics and unbelievers could enjoy, and you won’t be far off the mark.