It's difficult to describe Thy Neighbor, the latest film from Indiana-based filmmaker George A. Johnson without giving away vital story elements that serve as the foundation for a film that is an extreme rarity, an actual faith-based thriller that maintains its faithful roots while operating remarkably effectively as a gripping, involving and occasionally disturbing psychological, and I'd dare say spiritual, thriller.
The story centers around Zach Reynolds (Nathan Clarkson, Confessions of a Prodigal Son and The Purge), a hotshot author whose bestselling book "Cut the Fat" has helped him land a pastorate at Lifehouse Church. With big dreams of changing the world, Zach moves from the West Coast with his wife, Amber (Jessica Koloian, Courageous Love), and son, Alex (Michael Johnson, Homeless for the Holidays) into the kind of idyllic Midwestern town where families settle down, everyone goes to church, and the doors are always open for the neighbor down the street.
Pastor Zach is a quick sensation in this quiet little smalltown, his passionate and enthusiastic sermons embracing the traditional values of this warm and winning community. When he learns from the church's elders that his next door neighbor (Dave Payton, The Man in the Empty Chair) is a lost cause and one of the few people in town who doesn't attend church, Zach makes it his mission to reach out to his neighbor and give 'em Jesus.
The story that unfolds from here on out in Thy Neighbor is best left untold, the element of surprise perhaps being most effective with truly faith-based audiences that will be stunned, as I was, that writer/director George A. Johnson has found a way to tell a raw, unnerving story without resorting to graphic language/imagery and manages to tell a realistic faith story that packs a serious punch and doesn't pull any punches in exploring such themes as restoration, hope, grace and what it means, and what it may cost, to truly love thy neighbor.
As Pastor Zach, Nathan Clarkson is filled with sensitive swagger, the kind of young pastor that many of us have experienced before who comes in with all kinds of passion and enthusiasm and determination to change the world only to come face-to-face with the fact that sometimes, even with God on our side, the world just doesn't want to be changed. It was rather revealing to learn that Clarkson had appeared in The Purge films, precisely because his character his has that constant edge of being someone whose past is never really that far away. Clarkson's is a charismatic and complex performance believable both as a young pastor with a whiff of arrogance and a richly human young man constantly on his guard from the demons of his past.
Jessica Koloian, a relative newcomer to the cinematic scene, shines brightly as Amber, your almost typical pastor's wife who embraces smalltown life and is more embracing of her seemingly off-kilter neighbor. Koloian often reminded me of Monica Potter's warm, riveting performance in the underrated Patch Adams, Potter become the resident who seemingly serves as the heart of Adams' outreach often to the detriment of her own welfare. There's an undeniable creepy vibe that follows Koloian throughout Thy Neighbor, a vibe enhanced by Reid M. Petro's uncomfortably intimate and transparent lensing that kind of feels like that complete stranger that walks into church and sits down right next to you. Very closely.
As the neighbor in question, Dave Payton is, quite simply, extraordinary. It's the kind of performance that is so jarringly effective that as soon as I finished watching the film I found myself looking up his IMDB credits to check out his filmography and, quite honestly, being kind of surprised at how incredibly, well, normal it is.
I'll admit it. I was kind of relieved.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the quality ensemble players including young Michael Johnson as Alex, Matt Moore (Homeless for the Holidays) as Pastor Jim, Cami Jenkins (The Man in the Empty Chair), Amy Sutherland (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and a brief but memorable turn by Bishop Stevens (WWE, Empire).
There's much to praise about Thy Neighbor, though said praise also comes with the honest note that Johnson has crafted a true, authentic thriller grounded within the frailties and vulnerabilities of human relationships and the very real risks that exist within church life and within both the pastorate and, if we're being honest, every Christian's calling to reach out to those in the greatest of need. It's refreshing, remarkably so, to see a film speak to these issues honestly and to see a filmmaker tackle such challenging material without compromising his values. While I'd be hard-pressed to call Thy Neighbor a film for the entire family, it's definitely not, it's a valuable, insightful film that can and should be discussed in adult Sunday Schools everywhere. As a pastor myself, a sermon was already formulating in my brain even as the closing credits were rolling by.
Thy Neighbor was only recently completed and one can only hope that a successful festival run and/or indie distribution is in the future for this impactful, involving and immensely moving motion picture. Easily the best film I've seen from Johnson, whose Homeless for the Holidays can frequently be seen on Christian bookstore shelves during the holiday season, Thy Neighbor is thrilling, thought-provoking and the kind of film that will likely have you asking yourself "What would I do?"
In short, Thy Neighbor is the kind of film that the faith community needs and the kind of film that the faith community won't likely stop talking about.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic