All Saints opens with the most familiar of pious Hollywood setups, the clergyman tasked with saving a threatened church (school, orphanage, etc.). Then something unexpected and kind of wonderful happens.
Officially, John Corbett’s newly ordained Anglican clergyman, a former salesman named Michael Spurlock, is not charged with saving his first assignment, the dwindling rural parish of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tennessee. His ostensible mission is administering the parish only long enough to take an inventory and facilitate the sale of the property.
But it’s pretty obvious from the outset that Michael and his wife, Aimee (Stranger Things’ Cara Buono), will quickly become more committed to his remnant flock than his superiors intend. We can imagine, too, that the flock will grow. Less expected — if you don’t know the true story behind Steve Armour’s fact-based script, inspired by the real Michael Spurlock’s eponymous book — is where that growth will come from.
Early scenes are populated with folksy locals who would be at home in a standard faith-based film — a Kendrick brothers production, say. Notable among these is an irascible widowed Vietnam veteran named Forrest, played by the gravel-voiced Barry Corbin (No Country for Old Men), who dismisses Michael as a huckster in a clerical collar.
Then a character appears who is sufficiently out of place that a welfare clerk, attempting to provide a translator, misses his place of origin by more than 2,000 miles, and Michael is driven to Google distant places and events to understand the challenges this man and those with him have faced and how they wound up at his church.
Ye Win (Nelson Lee, compellingly low-key and matter-of-fact) and his companions are not Korean, as the clerk thinks, but Karen (the emphasis is on the second syllable) — refugees from Myanmar (Burma), displaced by civil war and genocide. Like Michael, I hadn’t heard of the Karen people before, and did some Googling afterward. All Saints might be the first faith-based film I’ve ever seen that helped to expand my horizons in any way.
Most Karen are Buddhists and/or animists, but Ye Win’s community is comprised of converts to Christianity. They are also, in Michael’s initially withering assessment, “farmers from the Bronze Age who can’t even afford shoes.” When he gently tries to deflect them to a nearby Presbyterian church better equipped to help them, Ye Win (the only member of the group who speaks English and their default leader) protests that they’re Anglicans. Well, then.
The Tennessee parishioners craning their necks at the mute Asian strangers filing into the pews behind them are a striking sign that All Saints means to push its characters — and maybe its target audience, to an extent — beyond their comfort zone.
“I won’t pass the collection plate,” a parishioner confides to Michael, adding, “It would wind up in a pawn shop.”
Before long, though, Michael finds himself mediating between the Karen and the outside world. Unknown authority figures from police officers to schoolteachers loom as potential threats to the long-suffering Karen — and, depending on circumstances, they might actually be.
Then comes a turning point, and Michael is asked to leave the well-being of the community to a large corporation rather than to the people of God. He could soothe his conscience in the knowledge that there will eventually be dozens of jobs. Or he could … well, what’s the alternative?
Contemporary faith-based films tend to revolve around characters either coming to faith, witnessing to or defending faith, or growing in faith and virtue (generally in ways congenial to conservative evangelical sensibilities: trusting God, becoming better spouses or fathers, etc.).
Welcoming the stranger, including refugees; learning about other cultures and challenging one’s preconceptions; building community; being transformed through encounter with the other — these are not themes typical of this class of films.
Neither is obedience to ecclesiastical superiors, embodied by a gruff but sympathetic Bishop Eldon Thompson (Remember the Titans’ Gregory Alan Williams). Nor is struggling to distinguish between God’s calling and one’s own pride or stubbornness. “God save me from first-time pastors,” the bishop groans — but he also recalls his own first call in Africa and his efforts to build what his flock really needed, an aqueduct.
TV veteran Steve Gomer, shooting on location at the actual All Saints Church in Smyrna, with some of the real Karen community essentially playing themselves, leavens a sometimes sitcom-y vibe with welcome touches of authenticity. In a remarkable moment, the loner Forrest bonds with Ye Win over their shared familiarity with firearms and Southeast Asian war.
With a story like this, despite its factual basis, there’s a danger of falling into a white-savior narrative. (When Michael, still expecting a quick exit, glibly tells his son, Atticus, played by Myles Moore, “Let’s keep them in our prayers and ask for God’s help,” Atticus asks doubtfully, “Aren’t you God’s help?”)
Yet the film is pretty clear that Michael, who tends to sabotage his professional life through stubbornness and resistance to managerial oversight, needs as much saving as anyone. He’s the protagonist, but Ye Win emerges as the real hero, holding his community together long before their current struggles.
Aimee plays a more active role than the average Hollywood supportive wife, and pushes back on her husband more. When a number of Karen adolescents wind up in trouble, she’s the one who shows up for them — and then has to figure out what to do with them.
One area in which the film could have done better is its evocation of its Episcopalian milieu. Michael wears liturgical vestments, and there are references to the lectionary and a snatch or two of liturgy, but for the most part the film is bereft of liturgical and sacramental imagery. The opening scene depicts Michael’s ordination by Bishop Thompson, yet there is no imposition of hands or any other liturgical gesture. It’s a very Baptist-friendly portrayal of Episcopal parish life.
Most faith-based films aim at being edifying to the faithful, or possibly at persuading the open-minded. All Saints is a vanishing rarity: a film that explores the Christian ideal in a way that is attractive, regardless of viewers’ faith or lack thereof, while offering a challenge to Christian viewers to live up to that ideal. We need more films like this — and more lived examples like this to make films about.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.