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The Independent Critic

Lynn Collins, Michael Ealy, Bruce McGill, Kwesi Boakye, Diego Klattenhoff, Cedric Pendleton
Brent McCorkle
Rated PG-13
98 Mins.
Provident Films
Behind-the-Scenes Stories and an interview with the real life "Papa Joe"


 "Unconditional" Finds the Impossible Glimmer of Hope 
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 Love is the most powerful force on earth. 

It can heal everything. I believe that. 

The absence of love? It can be a deal breaker, a force of evil and destruction and despair. 

Unconditional  is about love ... finding it, losing it, finding it again and sharing it every day and in every way. Samantha Crawford (Lynn Collins, John Carter) is living a charmed life as a successful author/illustrator with the man of her dreams. 

It only takes a moment for dreams to slip away, and that's precisely what happens when Samantha's husband is murdered. Suddenly, a life that seemed to be charmed becomes one of desperation, despair, a loss of faith and a slipping away of the will to live. It's only when she unexpectedly runs into her best friend from childhood, Joe (Michael Ealy, television's Common Law), that the seeds of hope are planted anew. 

The only question, really, is if these seeds can really grow once she gets pulled back into her husband's murder case. 

Now then, here's real kicker. As dramatic as this story is, it's not what the film is really about. Unconditional isn't about a life-shattering act of violence or a moment of despair. Unconditional isn't your usual formulaic Christian "feel good" flick. Don't get me wrong, Unconditional is a Christian film and it wears its faith loudly and proudly. 

Yet, Unconditional far transcends the usual formula because it not only wears its faith but weaves its faith into the lives of its characters in ways that feel authentic, honest, heartbreaking, exhilarating and relentlessly truthful. 

Too often, Christian filmmakers are content to simply "preach" to the choir. It's an odd choice given that faith-based films rarely reach that point of having crossover appeal and there simply isn't much need to "preach" to the usual Christian audience members who see the film. What Sherwood Baptist Church learned, and what the Christian cinema scene is finally embracing, is that movies have the power to change lives and to make God's Word applicable in a way that few things can. There's something about watching a film that can transform you, and a message of faith wrapped around a compelling story with quality performances and filmmaking can inspire and truly change lives. On occasion, it can even "crossover" to reach a wider audience. 

I felt a lot during Unconditional. To be honest, I cried a lot. I love it when a film can make me forget I'm a film critic, and instead remind me that I really love movies. 

I mean really.

I love that a movie can take me back to those thoughts and feelings surrounding my own traumatic life experiences and can let me feel them but, as well, can remind me how and why I survived them. As Samantha, Lynn Collins does an extraordinary job of portraying a young woman's unsoothable grief and bottled up rage. She believably portrays Samantha's slow transition into hopefulness and a willingness to feel life once again, a transition that endures a significant threat as she must deal with her past once again. 

It also helps that Joe is no ordinary guy. In fact, he's quite extraordinarily taking his own difficult life journey and helping to ensure that others don't have it quite as rough. The story in Unconditional is based upon a true story and while Samantha is central to all that goes on here, it's Joe's presence here that fuels much of the hope and inspiration. Despite having some rather serious challenges, Joe has opened his heart and his home to multiple kids from the projects who'd likely be left behind otherwise. He loves them, and Michael Ealy does an exceptional job of bringing that love, enthusiasm and commitment to life. While he has a health ailment that impacts his daily life, he goes way above and beyond for these children. 

The real Papa Joe, as he is called, founded the Nashville based organization Elijah's Heart, an organization that reaches out to Nashville's neglected children in pretty incredible ways. Unconditional is a testimony to the hope that Elijah's Heart plants everyday, and it is that very real life hope and commitment that really fuels the incredible passion that exists within the film. 

Writer/Director Brent McCorkle has crafted a deeply moving film that is also thought provoking, inspiring and impossible to forget. If you don't finish this film and rush over to hug your children and/or loved ones, then you should probably check your pulse. The glorious thing that Unconditional does far better than most Christian films is that it lives deeply into its faith. These two people serve to encourage one another while living as role models of faith for the children in the film. Refreshingly, there's not a hint of romance between them - simply an honest and heartfelt commitment with the kind of friendship and agape' that should represent relationships of faith. 

In addition to the two fine leading performances, there's not a weak performance among the supporting cast. Veteran character actor Bruce McGill adds depth to his portrayal of a rather cynical detective, while young Kwesi Boakye is terrific as Macon, a boy whose ill-advised decision leads to the Samantha/Joe reunion. 

Michael Regalbuto's lensing avoids the all too often halo effect found in Christian films, instead giving Unconditional pristine imagery naturalistic in presentation.  McCorkle and Mark Petrie contribute original music that complements the film perfectly and captures its tone without dominating it. The tech credits are top notch across the board, including an unexpected yet effective graphics sequence to open the film that paints a realistic portrayal without being unnecessarily graphic. McCorkle's script touches on a variety of subjects, but does so in a way that more teaches than preaches. 

Only the film's ending opts for a less than "natural" presentation, perhaps as a way of celebrating the journey that has unfolded it feels like the climax of a "Touched by an Angel" episode. While it may not work for everyone, it feels appropriate and true to the story. 

It should be noted that Unconditional is rated PG-13, a testimony to the fact that the film doesn't sugar coat its moments of despair and anguish but neither does it exploit or glorify them. For more information on the film, be sure to visit the film's website. There's also an Unconditional Facebook page! 

© Written by Richard Propes 
The Independent Critic