Screen Door Jesus

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 03/15/03 07:13:08

"A tough task tackled superbly."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Popular wisdom says that you should never address religion or politics in polite company. The logic goes that neither side is going to change their views based on your opposition, and in fact they'll likely defend those to the death - so what's the point in even going there? Screen Door Jesus not only goes there, but it mixes those two no-no's, examining the politics of religion in such a way that nobody - religious nut, middle of the road thinker or left-leaning liberal - could come away overtly offended. Director Kirk Davis has taken on what could have been a suicidal task, shining a light on the good, the bad and the ugly of religion, yet through an even hand, a first hand perspective and an honest dialogue, the result is one that every thinking person should see and consider.

An elderly black Texas woman is hacking about in her front yard gladioli when she sees something that nearly blows her mind. He screen door has an image across it. It's faint, it's hard to make out, but if you believe... it's Jesus. The rest of the town crowds around her home, either in fanatical hope that the savior is coming, or out of plain old rubberneck curiosity, but this sudden influx of religious passion doesn't sit well with everybody.

First there's the young black kid who is watching his mother dying of a bacterial infection she picked up while skinny-dipping. His grandmother refuses to allow the mom to go to hospital, claiming if it's God's will to take the sick woman, then so be it. Across the way you have the fanatical Christian who claims that having a TV is a sin, even though her like-minded neighbor has a satellite dish. When she decides to have her visiting grandchildren baptized without their parents permission, things get sticky. There's the out of work black man who enters into a white congregation in order to sway one of the parishoners, a bank manager, to give him a loan. Then there's the bank manager, who considers himself a devout man of the Lord, but very obviously has racist thoughts, not to mention an overtly racist son.

Finally, there's the new kid in town, watching all this weirdness going on and wondering what's wrong with all these people who have clearly forgotten what it means to be Christ-like.

Now, an outside observer might look at all this as an attack on Christianity, but it's anything but. Certainly these characters are imperfect, but who is perfect outside of God himself? To be flawed isn't a sin, but to ignore your flaws is, and this film very much shows what's right about organized religion, as well as what's wrong with it. The film is very much taken from the writer's and director's personal experience having grown up in the bible belt, and it's the tendency of the script to not hide the questionable acts of the charcaters that gives it legitimacy, in the eyes of both believers and heretics like myself.

The cast is filled to the brim with unknown actors who look like big names, and be that deliberately or by providence, it gives the film a much greater presence than it might otherwise have had while maintaining an indie feel that only helps the stories to be taken seriously. To name individual actors in this cast as worthy of special note would be unfair to all the others in the ensemble, as every person in the line-up is right on the money. With any six that might get credit, there would be another six unfairly left out.

I have to hand it to Kirk Davis - I never would have touched this topic, but perhaps he's close enough to the coalface to be able to tell what buttons to press and what buttons to leave alone. It's a balancing act that shows he not only knows his way around a film set, but also around people.

If there's any one thing that stops this film from being a five star masterwork it would have to be budgetary - the film does look and feel very regional and will certainly play better to a small southern or midwestern crowd than it would in the big city. On occasion the background extras look a little bored with proceedings, but hey, these are small gripes on a film that is well worth your time and money.

Screen Door Jesus is a brave, beautiful ensemble affair that never once strays into preachy or instructive or accusatory territory. It's a mixture of people we've all met before with stories we can believe and the simple message that folks need to chill the hell out and stop asking the question, "Yes, but what KIND of Christian are you?" Great flick.

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