The always terrific David Strathairn stars in the equally terrific “A Little Prayer”, a low-key Southern melodrama that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. This delightful and warm-hearted ensemble film is a beautifully sketched family portrait that doesn’t gloss over the imperfections that make us human. In fact, writer-director Angus MacLachlan (who penned 2005’s “Junebug”) embraces those imperfections and the results are honest and deeply affecting.
Set and shot in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, “A Little Prayer” is clearly a personal endeavor for MacLachlin. His affections, sensibilities, and experiences can be seen and felt in every frame, character, and story turn. His story revolves around a seemingly average Southern family who live in a cozy and quiet neighborhood accented by tweeting songbirds and tall oak trees. But once you get past the idyllic charms, MacLachlin reveals a troubled family and a patriarch’s well-meaning attempts to hold it together.
Strathairn plays Bill Brass, the owner of a local sheet metal company which he runs with his son David (Will Pullen). Both are war vets (Bill served in Vietnam; David in Afghanistan), a detail that subtly plays into the story later on. Bill finds himself more and more preoccupied with the problems of his two adult children. David is an alcoholic and all signs point to him having an affair with their company’s bookkeeper Narcedalia (Dascha Polanco). Bill’s crude deadbeat daughter Patti (Anna Camp) shows up unannounced with her daughter Hadley (Billie Roy) needing a place to stay after leaving her opioid-addicted boyfriend for the umpteenth time.
You can tell Bill’s concern for his kids is weighing on him. But a ray of light comes in his relationship with his daughter-in-law Tammy (a sublime Jane Levy). The two are kindred spirits from different generations, and there’s such warmth and trust in the connection they share. Like a father, Bill sees Tammy as one of his own and he relishes their closeness – something he doesn’t have with his own kids. For Tammy, Bill is a tender father figure – something she lacked in her abusive childhood household in Kentucky.
One of my favorite touches involves a mysterious reoccurring voice that pierces the otherwise peaceful morning air. It’s the voice of a woman singing old gospel hymns in the distance. Bill and Tammy find it soothing and are enchanted by it. They even go out one morning to see which neighborhood house it’s coming from. Certain others in the family mock the heartfelt spirituals and find it obnoxious. The different reactions tell us a lot, as does the voice’s sudden absence at very specific points in the film.
While Strathairn and Levy have an exquisite father-in-law and daughter-in-law chemistry, other characters add a richness to MacLachlin’s story. None are better than the endearing Celia Weston as Bill’s wife, Venida. Weston steals scene after scene playing a straight-shooting but tender-hearted Southern woman who will have you laughing out loud in one scene and breaking your heart in another. Polanco shines in a crucial scene that breaks her character out of the typical side-dish mold. And Camp nails Patti, a veritable whirlwind of irreverent and self-destructive chaos.
As individual secrets are brought into the light, Bill comes to the painful realization that he can’t mend every fence or control every outcome. And no matter how much it hurts, there’s a point where he may have to let go. Meanwhile, we learn that there’s a quiet strength underneath Tammy’s meek and modest exterior. She knows more than she shares, and she’s willing to make difficult choices – some that could weigh on her for the rest of her life.
While pulling back the many layers of family drama, MacLachlan keeps things fittingly understated throughout. Some of the reveals could have easily sent the film spiraling. But MacLachlan maintains a remarkable and steady control, never allowing his story to cross over into soapy sentiment. It’s obvious he trusts his script, and it doesn’t hurt to have such a top-to-bottom terrific ensemble led by David Strathairn. He could make combing his hair in front of a mirror compelling. And he brings that signature authenticity to a character and a movie that I was in tune with from its open frame to the closing credits.