Quiet Family Drama With Great David Strathairn

Feb 8, 2023

Home Movie Reviews ‘A Little Prayer’ Review: Quiet Family Drama Features an Excellent David Strathairn | Sundance 2023

Angus MacLachlan’s newest film also stars Anna Camp, Will Pullen, and Jane Levy, in her best performance yet.

Image via Sundance

When watching Angus MacLachlan’s A Little Prayer, it’s hard to not think of Junebug, the 2005 film written by MacLachlan that made Amy Adams an Oscar nominee with its quiet tale of life in North Carolina. Both films take their time, telling quiet, deliberately-paced stories about families with issues that might seem small-scale in some regards. MacLachlan’s stories embrace the slow-moving nature of life, not necessarily concerned with ratcheting up the drama in a way that feels dishonest to the characters he’s exploring.

A Little Prayer certainly takes its time, but there’s a simple honesty to this type of quieter filmmaking, as we watch a family slowly coming to grips with actions that could tear them apart. A Little Prayer largely follows Bill (David Strathairn) the owner of a sheet metal company and his family, including his wife Venida (Celia Weston, who also starred in the tonally similar In the Bedroom from Todd Field), his son David (Will Pullen), and his daughter-in-law Tammy (Jane Levy).
This family gets along with a very realistic and straightforward pattern of things. Bill and Venida love Tammy as their own, as she helps around the house, and even joins Bill on his search to find a mysterious woman who keeps singing loudly in the morning. But when Bill gets word that David might be having an affair, his obligation to his son, his family, and Tammy, overtakes his thoughts.

RELATED: Jane Levy and the ‘A Little Prayer’ Filmmakers Discuss the On and Off-Camera Magic of David Strathairn

MacLachlan’s story—as direct as it may be—makes some odd choices in the telling, however, almost as a way to heighten this story in unnecessary ways. At times, the score can get to be a bit too cloying in its attempt to build the emotion of the scene. Even stranger is MacLachlan’s directing, which often makes its use of handheld cameras egregiously known, even in the most unnecessary of situations. At times, A Little Prayer can feel like MacLachlan realizing how inherently uncinematic his story might seem on paper, leading him to attempt other ways to pump up this story that simply don’t work.

But what makes A Little Prayer work beyond these eccentricities is the quality of the performances. Strathairn is always great, regardless of the role, but A Little Prayer reminds how excellent he is when put in the lead. Strathairn plays the role of Bill in a reserved, thoughtful manner, but also as a father who is left shaken by the details of his son’s possible indiscretion. Weston is also wonderfully natural as Venida, and Anna Camp, the daughter of Bill and Venida, gives a performance that jolts this story awake at times.

Yet it’s Jane Levy as Tammy who is the real standout here. Tammy mostly keeps to herself, but we can see the pain of how David’s actions is eating her up inside. We often learn of who Tammy is through others, as she’s not the kind to talk about herself, and as we get bits and pieces of who she is, we start to see the complicated relationship she has with David, and the love she has for this family despite his actions.

A Little Prayer is often a fairly still story, but it all builds to a beautiful moment between Bill and Tammy, where we get to see the true impact of MacLachlan’s tale hit the audience in full force. It’s a scene that the entirety of A Little Prayer relies on, and Strathairn and Levy pull it off with beauty and power. It’s at this moment when you realize that beyond all the questionable choices made in the film, the story itself has found its way into your skin, as have these sincere performances that play to the reality of the situation.

Rating: B-

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