“I’m not that noble,” claims Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan) toward the conclusion of “Saint Judy,” but by that point, Sean Hanish’s tale has long since dissuaded everyone — both in the film, and watching it — of that notion. More problematic than Wood’s holy virtue, however, is the one-note preachiness of this based-on-real-events drama, which details the lawyer’s fight to secure a Muslim woman’s asylum, which in turn changed U.S. policy. It’s a case of good intentions and subpar storytelling, the latter of which will likely hamper its limited theatrical fortunes.
With immigration and women’s rights at the forefront of today’s news, “Saint Judy” arrives at an auspicious time, and to be sure, Wood’s achievement deserves to be celebrated. The issue is that Hanish’s film never misses an opportunity to make its saga as corny as possible, beginning with an introduction in which Wood struts into a courtroom and, despite being late, gets right in front of a jury, makes an emotional plea for her client’s innocence, and so immediately bowls over the defense that they capitulate before she can even finish her opening remarks. That sets the tone for the ensuing action, in which the plucky Wood relocates to Los Angeles so her son Alex (Gabriel Bateman) can be near her ex-husband (Peter Krause), and finds her calling in the field of immigration law.
Wood’s new boss Ray (Alfred Molina, also an executive producer) expects her to cut her teeth by handling open-and-shut cases. Instead, she latches onto the plight of Asefa (Leem Lubany), an imprisoned young Afghan woman about to be kicked out of America by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When Wood first meets Asefa, she’s been drugged out of her mind by a nasty prison official (Kevin Chapman). And as she soon learns, that’s not the only instance of Asefa’s victimization, since the former schoolteacher fled to the States after her demonstration for women’s rights ended in an assault by random men and, later, gang rape at the hands of local police.
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Wood’s efforts on behalf of her new client pit her against government counsel Benjamin Adebayo (Common) in a hearing presided over by Judge Benton (Alfre Woodard), during which revelations come to light that complicate the protagonists’ quest for justice. “Saint Judy,” alas, is anything but complicated, lionizing its heroine as an unimpeachably righteous figure to the degree that it quickly devolves into a sermon. “You have to fight for everything. You have to stand by the truth,” Wood tells her son at one point; “A person with broken spirit is why I fight,” she asserts to him during a later conversation. According to the film, she’s a flawless beacon of truth and courage, defending the persecuted and asking for nothing but justice in return. Her progressive-activist perfection is so pure that her low points are always resolved by the beginning of the next scene — a situation that drains the material of any intricacy or suspense.
Monaghan radiates a winning measure of defiant resilience and dignity, even when she and her illustrious co-stars are reduced to mouthpieces for political sentiments (as in Common’s censure of ICE) — which is depressingly often. While Wood may be as amazing as “Saint Judy” contends, its incessant glorification quickly wears thin, as it’s always clear that everything will work out in front of a sea of admiring faces — including Molina’s jaded Ray, Krause’s profit-first former spouse, and a group of Honduran immigrants she helped – set to James T. Sale’s rousing music. That it most certainly does, with director Hanish delivering perky montages and wannabe-uplifting slow-motion walks up courtroom stairs along the way. With no nuance found throughout its journey, though, the film makes historic triumph feel woefully underwhelming.