Blessed with fine performances, credible dialogue and slick production values that belie a reportedly paltry budget, “The Grace Card” ranks among the better religious-themed indies released in recent years. Indeed, pic appears to have breakout potential comparable to that of “Fireproof,” the 2008 sleeper hit that illustrated the appeal of inspirational dramas aimed primarily but by no means exclusively at auds that value churchgoing over trend-spotting. Grassroots promotional campaigns and enthusiastic word of mouth could extend its theatrical run prior to a long shelf life on homevid.
Plot pivots compellingly on the fortuitous teaming of two dissimilar Memphis police officers. Sam Wright (Michael Higgenbottom), a generous-spirited African-American family man who joined the force primarily to fund his work as a church pastor, humbly accepts his promotion to sergeant as a mixed blessing, as he worries that time spent on the beat keeps him too long away from the pulpit. Unfortunately, the promotion inspires envy, and more than a little rage, in Wright’s new partner, Bill “Mac” McDonald (Michael Joiner), a white cop who already has trouble with anger management.
Some 15 years earlier, Mac’s young son was struck and killed by a drug dealer — specifically, a black drug dealer — driving away from police pursuit. A toxic combo of rage and guilt has kept Mac inconsolable and quick-tempered, gradually poisoning his relationships with his long-suffering wife, Sara (Joy Parmer Moore), and their other son, Blake (Rob Erickson), a rebellious teen who has fallen in with bad companions.
First-time helmer David Evans, an optometrist who prepared for feature filmmaking by directing Easter passion plays at his church in Cordova, Tenn., evinces a real skill for straightforward storytelling. He effectively weaves matter-of-fact discussions about religious faith (or lack thereof) and race relations into a narrative that begins as a contrapuntal tale of two disparate families, then evolves into something quite different after a wrenching dramatic twist.
The screenplay by Howard A. Klausner (“Space Cowboys”), based on Evans’ original story, is appreciably edgier than many scenarios for similar faith-based fare, especially when dealing with Mac’s ingrained racism. It’s not altogether clear how much of the character’s prejudice stems from vivid memories of his young son’s death. But when he nearly drops the N-bomb in one of the pic’s most potent scenes, the impact is not unlike that of a fist slammed down on a table.
Joiner, heretofore best known as a standup comic, fearlessly illuminates Mac’s least likable qualities, even as he indicates the character hates no one as much as he hates himself. He’s at his best in scenes opposite Higgenbottom, who affectingly plays Wright as a decent man whose faith is tested less by Sam’s racist remarks than by the cruel twists of fate that befall his partner.
Among the supporting players, Louis Gossett Jr. stands out as Wright’s blunt-spoken grandfather, providing the backstory for the pic’s title (essentially, a selfless testament of forgiveness and solidarity) with gravitas and charisma. Elsewhere, Moore subtly suggests Sara has spent many long dark nights of the soul while fretting over her husband and her son.
Brent Rowan’s musical score — particularly an acoustic composition heard under the opening and closing credits — is one of the pic’s true grace notes.