Strong message, shouted softly
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, September 21, 2012
Like most melodramas meant to uplift, “Unconditional” is contrived and simplistic. Yet it doesn’t shout its religious message too loudly and is admirably forthright about racism and poverty.
Written and directed by Brent McCorkle, the movie was “inspired by true events” in the life of Joe Bradford, a Nashville community activist. But it begins with Samantha Crawford (Lynn Collins, last seen in less modest get-ups as a Martian damsel-in-distress in “John Carter.”) A former children’s book writer-illustrator, she draws and narrates the story of her emotional downfall: She had a blissful marriage and a comfortable life until her beloved husband, Billy (Diego Klattenhoff), was slain in an unsolved street robbery.
Sam, as she is known, used to live in a world of Disney-like cartoon critters and messages about contentment and perseverance. Now she’s a pistol-packing obsessive torn between trying to catch her husband’s killer and turning the gun on herself.
One night, Sam makes a pilgrimage to where her husband was killed. She sees a girl get hit by a car and rushes her and her brother to the hospital. The children are the mute Keisha (Gabriella Phillips) and the tough-talking Macon (Kwesi Boakye), parentless tots being raised by their grandmother in a nearby housing project.
At the hospital, Sam encounters Joe Bradford (Michael Ealy), who runs an after-school program that Keisha and Macon attend. This prompts the first of the movie’s many flashbacks. It turns out that Sam and Joe knew each other as children. In fact, she was the only child who was friendly to him when he transferred to an all-white school.
Joe has spent time in jail -- for an offense that probably isn’t one of the tale’s real-life elements -- and is now a committed Christian. He also has suffered kidney failure and likes to increase his daily drama by waiting until the last minute to plug into a dialysis machine. “Unconditional” is punctuated by renal crises almost as frequently as by flashbacks to Joe’s hard life, Sam’s lost happiness and Billy’s saintliness.
Although upholstered with pop-gospel music, the movie is not stuffed with Christian imagery or dramatic conversions. Instead, it preaches a sermon of acceptance and cross-racial understanding. (More than once, an African American character who seems menacing turns out to be benign.) All of the characters who need mending get it, but they’re healed by looking into themselves, not by subscribing to any particular dogma.
Contains violence and alcohol use.