The phrase “Sundance movie” gets tossed around as a pejorative, describing a modest film with a recognizable blend of melancholy and quirkiness in which characters tend to achieve self-discovery in approximately 90 tidy minutes. A Little Prayer, which premiered at the festival on Monday, fits that reductive characterization perfectly, but it’s capable of softening even the hardest heart. This is the right kind of Sundance movie, one whose low stakes yield high emotional rewards.
A Little Prayer‘s closest analogue is another worthwhile Sundance prototype: Junebug, the 2005 charmer that accelerated Amy Adams’ career. Both movies share a writer in Angus MacLachlan, who is an even-handed observer of small towns and the everyday people within them. MacLachlan also directed this one, and now that Sony Pictures Classics has acquired it for theatrical release, A Little Prayer is poised to be one of 2023’s indie breakouts.
Junebug and A Little Prayer share more than surface similarities. They are set in North Carolina, where MacLachlan lives, and depict upbeat women living with their troubled husbands’ parents. In this case, Jane Levy steps into Adams’ shoes. She fills them extraordinarily well, albeit with a smile that isn’t quite so perky. The Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist star portrays a Southern sweetheart named Tammy, first seen waking up next to a partner (Dickinson‘s Will Pullen) whose physical affection contradicts the fact that he is still fully clothed, having presumably stumbled into bed at some profane hour after heaven knows what.
Tammy’s closest bond is not with her spouse, David. It’s with his mother, Venida (Celia Weston, another Junebug alum), and especially his attentive father, Bill (David Strathairn). They are her surrogate family. If her marriage falls apart, she risks losing them, too—a causality that would upend the comfortable life Tammy has built. Movies love to portray in-laws as pests (and they sometimes are), but A Little Prayer finds resonance in the profound bond that can form among the few people who intimately understand a loved one’s complexities. As MacLachlan peppers in details about David’s past—he’s a veteran with alcoholic tendencies—Tammy’s connection to his folks seems sturdier and sturdier.
Some nuances of David and Tammy’s problems are best left unspoiled, but the primary wedge between them concerns the affair David is having with a co-worker (Dascha Polanco) at his father’s sheet-metal company. When Bill finds out about the affair, he wants to protect Tammy. “Straighten up and fly right,” he instructs David, aware that his son’s indiscretions could cost him the daughter-in-law he holds so dear.
One of MacLachlan’s wisest choices is to keep David at arm’s length, not because he’s entirely unsympathetic but because his stakes are lower. David gets to keep his family no matter how much he screws up, whereas Tammy will have to find a new support system if they separate. A Little Prayer isn’t about conflict so much as it’s about the ways conflict ripples out and changes the fabric of multiple relationships simultaneously.
Lest you think we’re dealing with some dour melodrama, know that A Little Prayer is lovely, restrained, and often quite funny. That’s the MacLachlan touch. As he did in Junebug and 2017’s little-seen Abundant Acreage Available, MacLachlan writes credible characters, quotidian middle-class souls weathering the passage of time. He may be one of the most underrated filmmakers working today. The tone he captures here is complemented by Scott Miller’s lush cinematography and Greg Danner’s gentle score.
There’s a bit more happening on the periphery, specifically regarding David’s petulant sister (a hilarious Anna Camp), who has returned home in the midst of her own domestic turmoil. Blissfully, none of A Little Prayer‘s threads are wrapped up with the pat simplicity that can earn the “Sundance movie” reproach. Levy, Strathairn, and Weston submit career-epitomizing work, capturing as much in what goes unsaid as they do in dialogue. These are characters, and actors, who understand that heartbreak is merely a fact of life, even—especially—when you’re surrounded by those you love.
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