'Doubting Thomas': Film Review

Courtesy Platform Media Group
A modest but serious film finding new angles on unacknowledged prejudice.
10/11/2019

Will McFadden directs himself in the story of a white man whose white wife gives birth to a black baby.

If discussions of race in America often hit brick walls when the points turn personal ("I'm not a racist, it's all those cops/landlords/Trump voters..."), fiction can sometimes find cracks in the mortar, showing how a decent, relatable character can be part of the problem. That's the case with Will McFadden's Doubting Thomas, which starts with a dicey-sounding premise — a white couple has a black child, and the wife swears it's not the result of an affair — but handles it with more grace than one expects in microbudget cinema. Imperfect but admirable for a serious approach that doesn't stumble over into off-putting earnestness, it's a debut with more on its mind than giving its writer-director a plum job as an actor as well.

McFadden plays Tom, a successful lawyer who's expecting his first child with wife Jen (Sarah Butler). So serious about his responsibility that sometimes he's the one who finds himself alone at Lamaze class, he nevertheless misses his wife's delivery — he's off chasing a hoodlum who stole her purse, and dealing with the cops afterward.

So when he arrives at the hospital, where his best friend Ron (Jamie Hector) has given Jen a ride, Ron knows something he doesn't: Jen's baby is unmistakably an African-American. Ron is black as well, but the two men are such close friends that the obvious hypothesis isn't the first one addressed: Well before anyone suggests Jen might've slept with Ron, husband and wife have settled uneasily on the idea of some recessive gene in their DNA. Maybe somebody way back in the family tree was black, and this is nature's way of informing them.

Neither new parent is quite satisfied with that explanation (predictably, Tom finds it harder to accept than Jen), but that doesn't keep them from being indignant when friends and strangers leap to natural conclusions: that, for instance, the couple adopted a child from Africa, or used a sperm donor. In a variation of that revolting ritual in which young parents assume other people's reproductive choices are their business, curious women assail Jen at a party, amplifying her unease. But soon enough, Tom has segued from obsessive web searches about genetics and childbirth stats to terms like "signs that my wife is cheating on me." And Ron, a bachelor who has always made himself at home in his married friend's house, is the prime suspect.

Rather than push hard into the narrative questions it raises, the film's midsection focuses largely on attitudes and acceptance. Does it change a white person's self-concept to give birth to a non-white child? How far back in your genealogy would you have to go for an ancestor of another race not to impact your identity? Why does it even matter?

Wisely, McFadden avoids nailing things down too tightly here, being content to show the shaky ground his characters stand on. As it unfolds, the drama's scripting is uneven, with some motivations more convincingly drawn than others and perhaps a few too many mentions of the big "Albright case" that Tom's supposed to be focused on at work. But the pic is open-ended enough to acknowledge that the remedies for unacknowledged prejudice are neither easy nor clearly identified. And if one obviously well-intentioned man has this much trouble, heaven help the country that produced him.

Production company: Long Way Home
Cast: Will McFadden, Sarah Butler, Jamie Hector, Melora Walters, James Morrison
Director: Will McFadden
Screenwriters: Will McFadden, Joseph Campbell
Producers: Casey Morris, Laura Jane Salvato, Mark Sayre
Director of photography: Phil Parmet
Production designer: Stephanie Spiegel
Costume designer: Cate Adams
Editor: Mark Sayre
Composer: David Majzlin
Casting directors: Liz Lewis, Angela Mickey

79 minutes