“All Saints” recounts an inspiring true-life story, but don’t let that keep you away. Director Steve Gomer’s well-crafted faith-based film is affecting without undue heartstring-yanking, almost entirely saccharine-free and, perhaps most impressively, not entirely predictable. Indeed, it stands a good chance of reaching out beyond its presumptive target audience and entertaining anyone who’s willing, to paraphrase the title of an album by the late George Michael, to watch without prejudice.
Much of the credit should go to top-billed John Corbett, who gives a career-highlight performance as Michael Spurlock, a hard-charging paper salesmen turned pastor of a failing Tennessee church. Taking his cue from the solid screenplay by Steve Armour, Corbett walks a fine line between selflessness and cocksureness. We’re supposed to believe that Spurlock ended his previous career after frequent clashes with what he viewed as bullheaded superiors — of course, he always knew better — and has not really dialed down his skepticism of authority after being ordained as an Episcopal priest. At the same time, however, we’re also expected to believe that, during trying times, he is not immune to painful self-doubt. In both areas, Corbett makes it easy to believe.
Along with wife Aimee (Cara Buono) and adolescent son Atticus (Myles Moore), Spurlock soldiers on through the initial culture shock of moving from New York to the rural Smyrna, Tennessee, his first assignment as a clergyman. He arrives at the All Saints, a church hard-pressed to cope with heavy financial burdens and a dwindling congregation, and more or less conducts a going-out-of-business sale.
Specifically, he’s meant to conduct an inventory and make the place presentable to prospective buyers who covet the land on which it sits. Naturally, this does not endear him to locals such as Forrest (perfectly cast Barry Corbin), a curmudgeonly Vietnam vet, and the few remaining members of the All Saints flock.
Pretty early in his pastoral appointment, however, Spurlock must tend to unexpected additions to that flock: Karen (pronounced kuh-REN) farmers — refugees from Burma in dire need of physical and spiritual sustenance. Ye Win (Nelson Lee, credible and creditable), leader of the displaced Karen people, asks for help from Spurlock, who reluctantly, then enthusiastically, accepts the idea that serving God entails things more important than peddling real estate.
It’s not exactly surprising that, in the end, everything turns out all right for All Saints and the refugees. (If it didn’t, this movie wouldn’t exist, right?) Even so, Gomer and Armour do a respectable job of building suspense as the Karen people and their fellow All Saints parishioners join Spurlock in a plan to farm the land around the church, aiming to raise money to feed the refugees and save the parish. Temporary setbacks are infused with a strong sense of urgency. And to a degree that’s unusual for a faith-based film, the protagonist is forced to seriously consider accusations — directed his way by, among others, his bishop (Gregory Alan Williams) and his wife — that maybe, just maybe, he’s driven as much by self-aggrandizement as he is by righteousness.
Cynics (including film critics) might question why no one in the Smyrna community ever evinces suspicion (or racially charged hostility) while dealing with the Karen refugees. To their credit, however, the filmmakers repeatedly indicate their awareness that, hey, this entire true-life story is as improbable as it is inspiring. At one point, Spurlock turns to his wife after an out-of-the-blue benefactor makes an invaluable donation and, incredulously, asks, “Did that just happen?”
The realism quotient is amped up more than a little by the fact that “All Saints” was filmed at the actual All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna on which the film is based, and features members of the All Saints parish in supporting roles. And to address the elephant in the room: Yes, some folks will insist on interpreting the movie as yet another paternalistic feel-good story about a white messiah who aids people of color. But to view it that way is to ignore the movie’s underlying message, which applies to the Karen refugees as much as it does to Spurlock: The Lord helps those who help themselves.