‘Free in Deed’: AFI Fest Review

Courtesy of Free In Deed LLC
An unforgettable collision of hope, faith and desperation.

David Harewood plays a troubled faith healer in a Memphis-set drama based on true events.

Inspired by news reports of an ill-fated faith healing, Free in Deed plunges headlong into the storefront churches that occupy a central role in its characters’ marginalized lives. David Harewood and Edwina Findley, the only trained actors in a compelling cast of non-pros, deliver harrowing performances as a self-styled healer and the desperate mother who seeks his help for her tormented son.

The gripping drama finds experimental filmmaker Jake Mahaffy stepping out of the no-budget realm of his previous, one-man-band features (WarWellness) while maintaining a distinctive aesthetic slant, at once pensive and visceral. After being named best film in the Horizons section of Venice, the picture takes its North American bow at AFI Fest, and is sure to garner more festival bookings. With its immersive textures and refusal to wrap-up a charged and complex subject in tidy messages, it could make art-house inroads in the hands of a sensitive distributor.

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Chief among the newcomers in the cast is RaJay Chandler, who’s extraordinary as Benny, the preteen boy at the center of the story. Apparently afflicted with an extreme form of autism, Benny is disruptive at home and eventually kicked out of school, the teachers unable to cope with the screaming and flailing that are his main forms of communication. Their final attempt to wrestle him into submission ends with the heartrending image of the immobilized boy wrapped in packing foam.

Findley (Middle of Nowhere) makes the pain of Benny’s harried single mother, Melva, as naked as it is profound. Without the financial resources that might afford her better medical care, she receives only rote diagnoses for her son, the doctors dispensing pharmaceuticals but never truly engaging with her or Benny. It’s no wonder she responds to the welcoming arms of a local Pentecostal church, or that it comes to represent her only hope.

There, under the tutelage of Mother (Prophetess Libra, whose basement church served as a key location for the Memphis-shot film) and Bishop (blues guitarist Preston Shannon), Harewood’s Abe makes Benny’s case a priority. Himself barely communicative, Abe is clearly troubled by past transgressions, and Harewood's portrayal is courageously unapologetic. In something of a joke, he repeatedly comes forward to be saved, as if his spiritual thirst can never be quenched.

His lips moving in mumbled prayer, he remains unsmiling, if deeply moved, in the ecstatic services he sometimes leads — real services involving actual congregation members, captured with a dynamic sense of movement and intensity by d.p. Ava Berkofsky. According to Mother, Abe once cured a man of cancer, and Melva is the latest in a long line of congregants to be affected by his healing touch.

As they grow closer, though, he’s unable to cross the chasm toward more earthly communion and love, leaving Melva, in many ways, as alone as she ever was. When she gives Abe a thank-you hug, the vigilant Mother cautions, “That’s enough, sister.” Mahaffy is alert to not just the ferocious warmth of the storefront church but also the proscriptions and superstitions that define it. In the name of curing Benny, church women clear Melva’s apartment of such “evil” influences as a toy lightsaber, owl pictures and Halloween decorations.

Yet Free in Deed is by no means a condemnation of the storefront churches that thrive in Memphis, or an argument against benighted religion. Much like Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, itself inspired by the case of an exorcism gone wrong, Mahaffy’s film paints a portrait of institutional failure on multiple fronts, leaving society’s castoffs in free fall. He shows authorities becoming involved only in times of crisis, or to stifle good deeds with red tape, as when the local health department shuts down the church’s mobile soup kitchen.

The healing sessions themselves are trying to watch, a chaos of voices and loving urgency and laying on of hands. The cacophony captures Benny’s anguish, heightened by the expressionist intimacy of Berkofsky’s camerawork. Tim Oxton’s impressively subtle drone of a score rises in fervor during the faith-healing sequences, while Benny’s patient younger sister (Zoe Lewis) looks on, clutching her baby doll, the embodiment of innocence and calm, quietly persisting.

Production companies: Greyshack Films, Votiv Films
Cast: David Harewood, Edwina Findley, RaJay Chandler, Preston Shannon, Prophetess Libra, Helen Bowman, Zoe Lewis, Kathy Smith
Director: Jake Mahaffy
Screenwriter: Jake Mahaffy
Producers: Mike S. Ryan, Michael Bowes, Brent Stiefel
Director of photography: Ava Berkofsky
Production designer: C. Michael Andrews
Costume designer: Jami Villers
Editors: Jake Mahaffy, Michael Taylor, Simon Price
Composer: Tim Oxton

No rating, 98 minutes