On a cold February night in 2007, Chris Williams was driving his family out for dessert when their vehicle was hit head-on by a seventeen-year-old drunk driver. In the accident, Williams's pregnant wife and two of his children were killed. Williams and one young son survived, while the eldest son was not in the car that night.
In that moment, both Williams and the seventeen-year-old drunk driver received, in essence, life sentences and uncertain futures. In that moment, as he was still stuck in his own vehicle he commits to doing something that most would consider absurd - to forgive.
It wasn't easy, of course. It wasn't easily accepted, with even Williams's own mother acknowledging that she may never be able to forgive the young man, Curtis, who had taken her daughter-in-law and two of her grandchildren.
Williams? He was relentless in his effort to "just let go."
Screened nationwide in a one-night-only special event through Fathom Event, Just Let Go feels less like a faith-based film and more like a faith-inspired film, a film grounded deeply within faith yet less about preaching and more about living into one's beliefs no matter how difficult and now matter how much resistance one may receive.
The film benefits greatly from the presence of Henry Ian Cusick (Lost, Hitman) as Williams, embodying the suddenly widowed father of two with an aching vulnerability yet a quiet, steely resolve. Cusick's Williams is conflicted yet unwavering in his belief that both he and Curtis (Mitchell Ferrin) received life sentences that night. While certain aspects of Williams's story have been changed out of cinematic considerations, something that's virtually inevitable within the framework of filmmaking, the story is true, dramatic, heartbreakingly authentic yet, in all likelihood, you've also experienced similar stories in your own life. The film screened as part of "A Night of Forgiveness," a live broadcasting of an event hosted by radio show host Delilah along with music by Christian artists including Lincoln Brewster. Brewster himself shared the story of watching the film for the first time and reflecting upon a very similar experience had by his own drummer, whose own family was in a similar car accident that left only the drummer, Michael, and his father surviving.
If there is a place where Just Let Go falls short, it's in the film's far too often gimmicky lensing that distracts from the film's heartfelt story and for the most part effective casting. The film features multiple slo-mo shots that are bathed in an angelic light that feels like a Hallmark greeting card has come to life and smacked you upside your head. It's an oddly inauthentic approach to a film that otherwise radiates authenticity.
Despite some disappointing technical choices, Just Let Go contains such a compelling story and rich performances that it's easy to let go of its minor transgressions in favor of embracing its belief in the power of love, forgiveness and hope to improve our lives and shine light into the deepest darkness.
Does it sound kind of schmaltzy? Yeah, it is. However, simply knowing that it is actually a true story makes it all far more palatable and, on a certain level, that much more inspiring.
In addition to Cusick's involving performance, Brenda Vaccaro returns from the "Where is she now?" column to turn in a fine performance as Williams's loving yet cynical mother whose belief in tangible justice provides a natural conflict that must be dealt with throughout the film. Of course, Williams also has to deal with raising his injured younger son, Sam (Jacob Buster, Christmas for a Dollar), and his eldest son, Michael (Liam Buie, Christmas for a Dollar), the latter having the most difficult time adjusting and withdrawing into an increasingly angry place. Sam Sorbo, married to actor Kevin Sorbo, is convincing as the prosecuting attorney bent on making sure that Curtis is tried as an adult rather than as a juvenile.
Directors Christopher S. Clark and Patrick Henry Parker do a nice job in the film's earliest moments of creating a sense of the warmth and closeness of the Williams family, a warmth that is reflected back onto in flashback scenes, some more successful than others, throughout the film.
The film, which was screened in several theaters throughout Central Indiana, was only sparsely attended at the AMC Castleton Square theater attended by this critic but those in attendance seemed to resonate with the evening's emphasis on forgiveness and the film's decidedly non-preachy approach to its material. I must confess I've gotten so used to hearing "Jesus forgave you, so you must forgive" that I found myself almost experiencing culture shock when we were allowed to simply trust the story to bring the message to life.
While Williams is a Mormon who was serving as a Bishop at the time of the accident, Just Let Go for the most part avoids denominational references in favor of an all-encompassing statement on faith, hope and love. It's an approach that works well as the film easily has the potential to reach believers across the denominational spectrum and even secular audiences.
While Just Let Go is not without its flaws, fans of faith-based cinema grounded in real life will appreciate this emotionally resonant and intelligently brought to life story of one man's life-changing tragedy and the even more life-changing choice that allowed a prodigal son to return home to his father.