In Theaters

When confronted with oppressively debilitating conditions, it’s only natural to long for relief, and, quite understandably, the harsher the ordeal, the more desperate we become. We may even reach a point where we are so distressed that we’ll do just about anything to be released from such burdens, sometimes going to lengths that surprise us. And, when the sought-after liberation finally arrives, we may be even more shocked, particularly if it assumes an unexpected form. Those are the issues faced by a trio of downtrodden souls in the moving, fact-based religious drama, “Free in Deed” (web site, trailer).

Abe Wilkins (David Harewood) can’t seem to get a break. He lives in a seedy Memphis motel and is routinely burdened by financial, legal and job security issues, all of which also tend to impact his health. Somedays he finds it difficult to carry on. But, despite these circumstances, Abe soldiers on, largely because of the moral and spiritual support he receives from the clergy and followers of a storefront Pentecostal church, including its charismatic bishop (Preston Shannon) and spirited parishioners, most notably big-hearted Mother (Prophetess Libra) and the eminently compassionate Isabelle (Helen Bowman).

Abe isn’t alone in his challenges, though. Single mother Melva Neddy (Edwina Findlay) struggles to hold down a job while raising her two children, Etta (Zoe Lewis), a sweet young soul, and Benny (RaJay Chandler), a seriously disturbed preteen whose uncontrollable emotional outbursts frequently get him – and his mother – in trouble.  As fate would have it, Melva has a chance encounter with Isabelle, who recommends that the two of them pray over Benny, a suggestion the young mother initially resists. However, when she sees her son begin to quiet down in response to the gesture, she’s impressed with the results, a reaction that prompts Melva to accept Isabelle’s invitation to attend church with her.

Pentecostal pastor Abe Wilkins (David Harewood) seeks his connection to the divine to invoke his healing talents in the gripping, fact-based religious drama, “Free in Deed.” Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

Through their attendance at services, Abe and Melva each begin to feel renewed, at least while in the company of their spiritual peers. Abe is so moved by the experience, in fact, that he quickly discovers he has the ability to help heal others, a skill that Mother and the bishop encourage him to develop once he’s named a junior pastor of the fellowship. However, despite his successful track record, Abe is initially hesitant to proceed with this task, especially since he seems unable to effectively heal his own life outside of the church. But, when others convince him to proceed, he confidently slips right into the role. And such confidence is something he’ll need when he’s called upon to tackle his biggest challenge of all – healing Benny.

Under Abe’s influence, Benny experiences calming effects far greater than what was achieved during the prayer session with Isabelle or from the many medical practices his doctor (Jon W. Sparks) tries. However, the effects aren’t permanent; not long after the boy settles down, he’s acting up once again, exhibiting behavior that seriously tries his mother’s patience and that even poses a danger to the well-being of his little sister.

What’s to become of Benny? Can Abe truly work his healing magic on the young man? Does he have enough faith in his abilities to see him through this ordeal? And what of Melva – how long will she be able to hold up under these trying conditions? Those are among the questions that get called as this intense spiritual scenario plays out.

Troubled single mother Melva Neddy (Edwina Findley) struggles to keep her life balanced while attempting to raise her severely emotionally disturbed son in director Jake Mahaffy’s “Free in Deed.” Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

This ambitious, frequently heartwrenching tale of faith and the elusive search for meaning in our relationship to the divine is, admittedly, sometimes difficult to watch. The film’s intensity is palpable, affecting viewers on a gut level, suggesting there’s more to this than just a story, that it’s a reflection of some intrinsic truth. While the film could have used some judicious editing to eliminate some narrative redundancies, this fact-based drama is otherwise gripping and engaging, with an excellent ensemble cast bringing the story to life, especially among the three principals. It’s particularly impressive that director Jake Mahaffy succeeded in pulling this all together on a shoestring budget.

This 2015 production has been somewhat slow in coming to the theatrical marketplace. It played at a number of film festivals throughout 2016 and has only recently gone into domestic release, but the wait has been worth it. Along the way, though, the picture received its share of accolades, including a number of awards. It earned considerable recognition in the Independent Spirit Awards competition, where it racked up nominations for best male lead, best supporting female, best cinematography and the contest’s John Cassavetes Award, which honors the best film made on a production budget of $500,000 or less.

Benny (RaJay Chandler), an emotionally distressed preteen, undergoes a variety of treatments – from medical to spiritual – to alleviate his suffering in “Free in Deed.” Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

The answers we seek in life aren’t always easy to come by, and, when they do, they often surprise us, taking us in unexpected directions. This is particularly true when it comes to matters involving the alleviation of suffering and our understanding of our relationship with our Creator. They often yield results that don’t necessarily match the form of our hopes but that nevertheless invariably embody their sought-after essence. Recognizing this may not be easy. However, when that happens, then we have a shot at real freedom.

Cinematic Missteps 

Everyone makes mistakes, even filmmakers. That can be a real disappointment to fans, including those who enjoy movies with New Age, spiritual and metaphysically oriented themes. Read about some of them in “Cinematic Missteps,” my latest installment in the Conscious Cinema series in the fall edition of The HAPI Guide magazine, available by clicking here, here or here.

The Best of Movies with Meaning – “Presenting Princess Shaw”

What does it mean to follow one’s creative dreams? It can be a challenging and frustrating experience, especially when one’s efforts don’t readily bear fruit. But, when events conspire to bring about the realization of those aspirations, the rewards are tremendously fulfilling, an outcome chronicled in the uplifting documentary, “Presenting Princess Shaw” (web site, trailer), available on DVD.

Aspiring singer-songwriter Samantha Montgomery (a.k.a. Princess Shaw) spends her days as a health care worker in a senior center and her nights as a would-be performer in New Orleans. However, despite her perseverance, her musical career seems to gain little traction. Even with her own YouTube channel, on which she posts a cappella renditions of her compositions, she has little success attracting fans or potential backers.

Meanwhile, across the globe in Israel, visionary composer and video artist Ophir Kutiel (a.k.a. Kutiman) scans the Internet (particularly YouTube) in search of material for use in the unique creations he features on his own YouTube channel. Kutiman compiles inventive video mash-ups that feature samples from amateur musicians who post their performances on the web, combined with his own original orchestration, creating entirely new distinctive works. He has developed quite a following for these creations, earning him international acclaim.

While searching YouTube, Kutiman discovers Princess Shaw’s videos, and he’s mesmerized. He begins sampling her videos and reworking her music with his original arrangements. The result is an overnight sensation, one that astounds viewers around the world – including Princess Shaw herself, who knew nothing of Kutiman’s reworking of her material until she saw it online for herself. This fusion leads to a new creative collaboration, one that brings together two of the unlikeliest of participants.

Singer-songwriter Samantha “Princess Shaw” Montgomery (left) and inventive composer-arranger Ophir “Kutiman” Kutiel (right) engage in an unusual musical collaboration in the intriguing documentary, “Presenting Princess Shaw,” available on DVD. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Success issues aside, the film celebrates what it means to create for its own sake. This is something aspiring artists often lose sight of as they seek to establish themselves. However, as Princess Shaw, Kutiman and the many YouTube artists featured in the film illustrate, there is much to be said for pursuing our creative ventures, regardless of the outcome. One would hope that rewards follow from our efforts, but, as this picture shows, sometimes creative fulfillment is its own dividend. 

Needless to say, “Presenting Princess Shaw” imparts a resoundingly uplifting message, one that’s sure to inspire viewers. The film candidly captures an artist’s struggle to get by, both creatively and in the challenges of everyday life. The protagonist’s heartfelt revelations about her life and her past are indeed moving and provide insight into the source material for her music.

But, even though the film is based on a true story, its designation as a “documentary” might seem a bit dubious, given the chronology of events and the participants’ supposed one-sided awareness of one another. In production notes for the film, director Ido Haar acknowledges that, while he knew what Kutiman was up to with Princess Shaw’s music, he didn’t volunteer such information to her while filming her in the run-up to the remixed video releases, a revelation not made in the film. Without this acknowledgment, astute viewers might justifiably wonder how the filmmaker just happened to be around his subject at those opportune moments of personal revelation when she was still largely unknown. This is a rather glaring oversight, in my opinion. Nevertheless, with that caveat in mind, it’s still entirely possible to enjoy the picture and what it has to offer, even if this omission makes some of the content seem somewhat suspect.

Climbing the ladder of success often pushes us to our limits – and beyond – as we seek to find our voice. Being in the right place at the right time, though, can turn things around considerably, especially when we’re prepared for those fortuitous moments when they arrive. We should all be so fortunate, and we have Princess Shaw’s example to draw from.

A full review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.