Sibling filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin occasionally strain credibility and test patience with “October Baby,” their debut feature, but they’re blessed with a lead player whose affecting performance goes a long way toward papering over any narrative shortcomings. Newcomer Rachel Hendrix grabs attention and sustains sympathy as a lovely yet troubled 19-year-old student determined to unlock the secrets of her past after learning the circumstances of her birth. While obviously aimed at devotees of faith-based cinema, the pic isn’t preachy: The underlying anti-abortion message is notably understated, and religious plot elements are implicit rather than explicit until the final reel.
After collapsing during a college theater production, Hannah Lawson (Hendrix) gets a double-whammy revelation while consulting with her doctor and parents about her ongoing health problems. She’s surprised when she’s told her father (John Schneider) and mother (Jennifer Price) actually are her adoptive parents, and even more stunned to learn she was abandoned by her birth mother after barely surviving a failed abortion and being born prematurely.
Determined to discover more about her biological mom, Hannah reluctantly accepts an invite from longtime friend Jason (Jason Burkey) to join him and some friends — including Jason’s extremely jealous girlfriend (Colleen Trusler) — on a spring-break road trip to New Orleans. On the way, Hannah plans to stop off in Mobile, Ala., to ferret out info at the hospital where she was born. But the other travelers are written out of the plot for a long period — and aren’t missed at all during their absence — so that Hannah is accompanied only by Jason as she follows an improbably easy route toward her goal.
Time and again, Hannah manages to talk her way out of trouble and fortuitously encounter helpful folks with sympathetic ears. Among the most helpful is a former abortion clinic nurse (very well played by Jasmine Guy) who anchors one of the pic’s most powerful scenes, one that may lead some in the opposing camp to dismiss the entire pic as pro-life propaganda.
The screenplay by Jon Erwin and Theresa Preston is rather too reliant on contrivance to propel “October Baby” along at its unhurried, sometimes downright pokey pace. But the appealing Hendrix increases the credibility quotient with a compelling portrait of Hannah’s urgency and obsession, along with hints of a self-loathing born of her knowledge that she was deemed, quite literally, an unwanted burden by her birth mother. Schneider brings a similar degree of emotional truth to his standout supporting performance as Hannah’s loving but overprotective father. And Burkey hits all the right notes as Jason, who cares too much for Hannah to admit he wants to be something more than a reliable buddy.
Given the Erwins’ background as award-winning musicvideo helmers, it’s not exactly surprising to see how technically slick and polished “October Baby” appears. What’s unexpected is how smoothly and believably the co-directors introduce a frank discussion of divine mercy and human failings during a final-reel encounter that primes the audience for something hokey and heavy-handed. But as the scene progresses, the stealthy power of the thesps and the dialogue take hold, until it stops being a scene and simply is.