Unconditional, directed by Arlington native Brent McCorkle, says many things about love, forgiveness, underprivileged children, and even a little on racism. Quite a lot to cover in less than two hours. Wind lifts the story of Samantha and her journey to find peace, but the film glides shakily under the weight of its many themes. With so much to teach this fallen world, the biggest mistake for Christian filmmaking is trying to say it all in one story.
After losing her husband to a fatal mugging, Samantha Crawford (Lynn Collins) plans to end her own life. Before she can complete the deed, two child victims of a hit-and-run draw her in to help them get to the hospital, where she crosses paths with her best childhood friend, Joe Bradford (Michael Ealy), who runs a safe house for children from the projects. As they reconnect and reminisce on their childhood and stories of brokenness, Sam begins to suspect her husband’s killer lives in the apartment next door.
Of all the things to say for Unconditional, the music score is some of the best in recent indie film. Matched with above-average lighting and picture tones, the music greatly helps in carrying the impact of the story, particularly as we’re introduced to the characters of Sam, Joe, and the two kids, Macon (Kwesi Boakye) and Keisha (Gabriella Phillips). Some of the best camera work is in surroundings and atmosphere as well as close-ups of particular objects that help to develop the characters better.
Unconditional also wields its metaphors well, particularly the metaphor of becoming a believer--when Macon asks Joe to be his surrogate father in the hospital—and in Sam’s story about the firebird trying to reach the sun. Be warned, it will make you cry. I saw this movie with two other grown men, both of whom admitted to teary eyes at various points.
Based on the life of the real Joe Bradford, Unconditional, interestingly enough, casts the fictional character Sam as the lead, making Joe her mentor. Because Joe is based on the real person, Joe’s and Sam’s characters seem to struggle over who the lead really is. Joe’s mentor attributes come off strong sometimes; Sam absorbs his lessons and advice with little to no resistance, which can make her seem like a blank slate.
Joe is an interesting character nonetheless, largely because of Ealy’s performance. The film apparently tries to stay true to the facts of the real Joe Bradford’s life. During flashbacks of how Joe came to run a safe house, his voiceover tells us that he lost hope while doing time in jail. But Joe never seems less than righteous. Good on Joe; not so good on the story. People without hope don’t try to make friends in jail. People without hope don’t stand up to bullies. Yet Joe does these things before hitting rock bottom in isolation.
Bottom line, the movie is worth seeing. Unconditional has many strengths, yet it also shows that McCorkle has much to learn about storytelling. The Christian genre’s most common shortcomings are quite fixable if future filmmakers sit down and watch what has already been done and learn how to do it better. Too many themes. overpowering mentors. Telling and not showing. Correct these errors, and truth will fly like a firebird through the storm.
Trevor Main has a B.A. in fiction writing from Columbia College, Chicago, and is working on his master’s degree in communication at Dallas Theological Seminary. His ministry experience with Youth With a Mission has taken him across Europe, Africa, and Asia.