Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Treating mental illness often requires a delicate and nuanced approach. For those already living at a financial and social disadvantage, finding the best care for a loved one becomes even harder. In Jake Mahaffy’s latest film, a single mother of two struggles to provide the necessary help for a son who suffers from an unnamed disorder. Faith fills the void when every other option fails her, with disastrous results.
Melva Neddy (Edwina Findley) must endure particularly difficult trials as a single parent. Her eldest child, Benny (RaJay Chandler) acts out often, descending into fits of yelling and fighting at the slightest provocation. Medication hasn’t improved the situation, which is exacerbated by Melva’s impotent frustration over each new outburst. Doctors warn her that protective services usually get involved in such cases. After an incident at school, she loses her job when she leaves early to care for Benny. She looks for help in all the right places to no avail. Religion steps into the void, introduced by Isabelle (Helen Bowman), a member of a small Pentecostal congregation nearby.
Melva attends the first service skeptically, both intrigued and uncomfortable when worshippers step up to the altar to have their demons banished and sins forgiven. The charged atmosphere proves overwhelming, however, and she finally steps up to confess her heavy burden in search of relief. With alarming speed the congregation takes the Neddy family under its wings. Members visit Melva’s apartment, discarding framed pictures of owls and toy lightsabers because of their evil influence. Abe (David Harewood), the minister, begins regular…well, exorcisms of Benny. Melva’s entanglement is swift, even as Benny’s condition remains unchanged, and her reliance on the church grows.
The emphasis for Mahaffy rests in showing off a particular style that is consistent, if not particularly original: extreme, off-center close-ups; frames filled predominantly by negative space, which some viewers may recognize from Mr. Robot. It cannot quite compensate for the thin story, which would have benefitted from some additional backstory for the principals. Instead, a good portion of the film’s runtime circles back again and again to images of worshippers in the throes of salvation (or group hysteria, depending on one’s outlook) with little or no change in each repetition.
Some of the narrative void is filled by good performances from Findley and Harewood. Melva never entirely gives in to the viewpoint of her new friends, but Findley captures her desire for an easy, divine solution in just a glance or the tense set of her shoulders. Each choice she makes is in the best interests of her family, even if they don’t all yield happy results. Harewood gives the minister a level of tortured conflict not present in his public actions. Abe is a man armed by his faith but unsure how to wield it, proselytizing at unwanted times and constantly searching for redemption others think he already has.
Supposedly based on true events, there is a lot of blame to be passed around among a lot of well-intentioned adults in Free in Deed. Writer-director Mahaffy eschews overt commentary for a more stylistic approach with mixed results. What is perhaps most cutting of all is the generality of his chosen setting. The events that transpire could take place in any city, to any family, despite their good intentions.
In select theaters and on demand September 8.