With faith-based filmmaking confidently on the rise in the U.S., a counter-movement of similarly independent agnostic cinema seems a debate-stoking inevitability — with Jake Mahaffy’s searing, skeptical but roundly compassionate ecclesiastical drama “Free in Deed” sure to raise hackles and rally support in equal measure. Pulling few emotional punches with its troubling, fact-inspired story of a self-styled Christian miracle worker’s ill-fated engagement with a desperate single mother and her tormented young son, Mahaffy’s film offers an illuminating immersion into the rarely-depicted world of storefront churches, also placing a welcome spotlight on a disenfranchised sector of African-American society. A deserving winner of top honors in Venice’s Horizons strand, this jagged, productively provocative work needs every such plaudit to convince skittish distributors of its conversation-piece potential.
For the Ohio-reared, currently New Zealand-based Mahaffy, “Free in Deed” reps a long-time-coming consolidation of promise, arriving seven years after his tough narrative debut, “Wellness,” won the Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest. His third feature (including 2004’s doc “War”) retains its predecessor’s virtues of conscientious social realism and life-in-the-shadows atmosphere, though to more refined effect. No longer serving as his own cinematographer, Mahaffy works with the gifted Ava Berkofsky to present a darkly authentic view of working-class Memphis, broadly capturing the region’s distressed, makeshift urban construction while employing more expressionistic techniques of lighting and framing to lock its characters into selective, sometimes involuntarily isolated points of view. As such, the pic’s visual texture calls to mind earlier works by Ava DuVernay — whose 2012 breakthrough “Middle of Nowhere,” as it happens, demonstrated the concentrated power of actress Edwina Findley.
Mahaffy’s film gives Findley a remarkable leading showcase, casting her as Melva Neddy, a life-bruised, staunchly God-fearing mother of two driven to the end of her tether by parenting challenges. These mostly involve her autistic pre-teen son Benny (RaJay Chandler, in an extraordinary, physically demanding debut performance), who is afflicted by internal ailments that doctors seem unable to identify. Extreme pain manifests itself in violent, inarticulate, body-bashing bouts of self-harm, exhausting his mother and sometimes even endangering his younger sister Etta (Zoe Lewis). Hastily prescribed medication brings fleeting relief at best.
Thus failed by a system indifferent to the exceptional crises of those within Melva’s disadvantaged demographic, she instead turns to a more welcoming authority: the church. More specifically, that means the informally communal, evangelical places of worship, often family-run and independent of denomination, that pop up in cheaply converted commercial or industrial spaces. Relatively sparse attendance at her chosen outlet is countered by the sheer gospel-fueled vigor of its sermons, where a dynamic Bishop (Preston Shannon) leads his congregation in intense prayer and demonstrative acts of deliverance. It’s there that Melva meets Abe (British thesp David Harewood, from TV’s “Homeland”), an introverted, persistently redemption-seeking outcast who believes himself to be a faith healer, with the power to rid Benny of the supposedly demonic forces that plague him.
Mahaffy’s lean, heavily observational screenplay is drawn from the headline-making 2003 story of ordained Milwaukee pastor Ray Hemphill, who was convicted of child abuse after an attempted exorcism on an eight-year-old boy. Yet this is no sensationalistic true-crime dissection: As starkly and soberingly as Mahaffy dramatizes the family’s unhappy alliance with Abe, the film takes a more expansive, sociological view of the community and environment that fosters such personal damage. “Free in Deed” is by no means flatly condemnatory of the religious institutions that it scrutinizes with such care and credibility. Its raw, extended sermon sequences (reminiscent in their immediacy of those in Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” albeit within a very different social sphere) provide a palpable, persuasive sense of the comfort and solidarity they offer regular attendees. No party in this humane, arguably moral-averse parable is written or played with undue consideration of their options or intentions.
Yet there’s no denying that “Free in Deed” takes a strictly secular view of religious devotion, questioning the ultimate value of unwavering faith in a higher power, as well as the social responsibility of the unregulated establishments that proclaim themselves places of spiritual communication. If the film ultimately directs the brunt of its anger toward the inadequate state services that enable storefront churches to become such community centers, its primal depiction of prayer in practice is sure to be viewed as coldly alienating by some devout auds. Others may see it as a more specialized investigation of religious subculture. Either way, the veracity of Mahaffy’s evocation is commendable: Much of the film was shot in the real-life basement church of Faith Temple founder Prophetess Libra (who also appears in a supporting role), and these documentary-style scenes of group worship crackle with electric, ardent human synergy.
Superb, skin-prickling performances by the three principals contribute invaluably to the pic’s stern believability, with Findley utterly wrenching as a dedicated mother pushed to frank irrationality by others’ neglicence. Harewood quietly embodies a complex tangle of grand delusions and naive goodwill as her purported savior; Chandler burrows unnervingly deep into Benny’s impermeable world of suffering. A vivid gallery of non-pro ensemble players contribute grit and local tang. The film’s tangibly dilapidated selection of story-bearing Memphis locations — from sagging hospital corridors to the wintry carcasses of junk-filled swimming pools, all precisely caught in Berkofsky’s lens — plays no less vital a role, conveying an environment that even non-believers might concede could use some spiritual grace.