Cliches and contrivances abound in “Unconditional,” a faith-based drama about redemption and renewal that is blessed with the saving graces of persuasive performances, handsome production values and some undeniably affecting moments of spiritual uplift. Inspired by the real-life activities of “Papa Joe” Bradford — a Nashville community leader and founder of Elijah’s Heart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping underprivileged children and their families — the pic could generate enough favorable word of mouth during and after limited theatrical play to sustain an extended homevid shelf life.
To provide a p.o.v. for his fact-based scenario, helmer-scripter Brent McCorkle relies heavily on a fictional character: Samantha “Sam” Crawford (Lynn Collins), a children’s author who plummets into depression after her beloved husband is fatally shot during an inner-city street mugging.
Pic begins with Sam preparing to shoot herself at the exact spot where her husband was murdered — and just happens to be in the right place at the right time to witness Keisha (Gabriella Phillips), a mute little girl, getting struck by a hit-and-run driver.
Shocked out of her suicidal funk, Sam rushes to assist the injured child, and winds up accompanying Keisha and Macon (Kwesi Boakye), the girl’s brother, to a hospital. There, Sam just happens to run into a childhood friend, Joe Bradford (Michael Ealy), an ex-con who has dedicated his post-prison life to helping underprivileged kids like Keisha and Macon.
Eager to help his buddy rebuild her shattered life, Joe encourages Sam to involve herself in his efforts to mentor at-risk kids. But even as Sam begins to bond with the children helped by “Papa Joe,” she notices that Keisha and Macon just happen to live next door to a mechanic (Cedric Pendleton) who fits the description of a prime suspect in her husband’s killing.
When McCorkle isn’t busy ladling on coincidences, he allows his two well-cast leads enough room to earn sympathy and occasionally tug heartstrings with well-detailed, emotionally resonant performances. Collins gets noticeably more screen time, but Ealy, thanks in part to his character’s dicey medical condition, is every bit as compelling.
McCorkle also encourages impressive work from lenser Michael Regalbuto, who skillfully employs varieties of color to underscore contrasts between the warmly inviting sanctuary of Sam’s farm, where Joe and the kids enjoy a pleasant and plot-propulsive overnight visit, and the cold hues of Nashville’s meaner streets.
Child actors Phillips and Boakye are appealingly unaffected, while Bruce McGill effectively underplays his few scenes as a case-hardened cop who insists, not too convincingly, that he’s not a racist. Pic’s religious undercurrents reach flood tide only during the final minutes, when a character gives glory to God in so exuberant a manner that even agnostics in the audience may share a bit of the excitement.