THE STORY – Tammy (Jane Levy) and her husband David (Will Pullen) lead a quiet life in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, sharing a home with David’s parents, Bill (David Strathairn) and Venida (Celia Weston). David and Bill work together and have always been closely involved in each other’s lives. When Bill begins to suspect that David is straying in his marriage, he is drawn into a relationship minefield, caught between wanting to protect his amicable daughter-in-law and trying to understand his impulsive son. As Bill confronts the limits of patriarchal influence, he is also forced to reckon with disheartening behavioral patterns that may be transcending generations.
THE CAST – David Strathairn, Jane Levy, Celia Weston, Will Pullen, Anna Camp & Dascha Polanco
THE TEAM – Angus MacLachlan (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
Hollywood seems to have moved away from family dramas, but Angus MacLachlan is keeping them alive with his third feature, “A Little Prayer.” Like his “Junebug” script, this one shows that the filmmaker knows how to lure audiences into a story that features real people navigating real-life struggles. It’s quite refreshing to see in this era of spandex-wearing superheroes and unimaginable situations, even if it’s a conventional story in the end.
The North Carolina-set film focuses on married couple Tammy (Jane Levy) and David (Will Pullen), who lives in an adjoining home next to David’s parents, Bill (David Strathairn) and Venida (Celia Weston). It’s a peaceful life for all of them, based on how MacLachlan paints it. In the morning, Tammy and Bill listen to one of their neighbors sing (even though some of the late risers can’t stand it) and have lovely morning chats before Bill and David head off to work. The father and son have always been close — not only living in close quarters but also working together at the steel factory Bill built.
One day, Bill begins to suspect that David is having an affair with secretary Narcedalia (Dascha Polanco). Later on, his son even begins to flaunt his sleazy ways in social settings. This puts Bill in a bit of an awkward situation: does he butt into his son’s marriage and confront him about it, especially since he adores his daughter-in-law, or does he let them figure it out? Strathairn shows quite the turmoil in his emotional but delicate performance. You can tell that he doesn’t necessarily want to be telling his grown son to get his life in order, but he also doesn’t want to keep important information from Tammy. His scenes with Pullen also show that there’s likely more the patriarch doesn’t know about his son and his struggles with some form of PTSD, adding to the growing divide between them.
Overall, MacLachlan does a great job of showing the generational differences between the older couple and the young people in their lives. Bill and Venida have been raised a certain way and have done their best to pass their values and morals along to their children, but times have certainly changed. Aside from the struggle Tammy and David are facing, Bill and Venida’s daughter, the fiercely independent and strong Patti (Anna Camp), comes to stay with her child after experiencing problems in her own relationship. Though they urge their daughter to move on from the relationship, MacLachlan poignantly reminds us once again that we’ll never truly know what goes on between two people behind closed doors.
In the midst of all the hurt going on in this family, there are moving moments that are elevated by stellar performances. It’s so pleasant to watch Strathairn and Levy share scenes together, especially toward the film’s end when their characters bare their souls to one another. Levy doesn’t get much of a spotlight throughout the film, but she really shines when her character tells her father-in-law why it’s so hard to leave her husband. Strathairn, in return, delivers a gentle performance in that moment. Bill and Narcedalia also have a great moment together where they talk about the affair and how it has impacted her in more ways than David.
The stakes never feel that high in “A Little Prayer,” but led by a wonderful performance from Strathairn and the supporting cast, it’s an enjoyable, breezy family drama anyone could dive into. Strangely, cinema got away from these types of movies, especially when “The Family Stone, “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” to name a few, were successful. But, as long as MacLachlan keeps bringing honest and moving stories to the screen, there will always be an audience for them.