In the quiet, peaceful mornings that ease your way into writer-director Angus MacLachlan’s A Little Prayer, a woman belts out gospel songs that echo down the block. They’re a bleary-eyed nuisance to many waking in this small, North Carolina neighborhood, but Bill Brass (David Straitharn) and his daughter-in-law Tammy (Jane Levy) have a mutual fascination with them, rising early with curiosity and wonder. Why does she sing them? Where do they come from exactly? The pair eventually attempt to investigate their leafy streets to find the source, yet as the spirituals dissipate and leave them alone in bird-chirping silence, they seem to revel in their beautiful, unsolved mystery.
Their unusual bond carries the movie’s spirit like a warm breeze, a comforting and centering presence as Bill, a Vietnam veteran, navigates his family’s dysfunction and reckons with his parenting past. Like Junebug, MacLachlan’s feature writing debut that also premiered at Sundance and put Amy Adams into orbit, this latest effort gives Levy a similar, understated opportunity to flourish within a modest domestic drama. But the movie belongs to Straithairn, whose mild demeanor and weary wisdom gently extends the tradition of older actors––from Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond to Brian Dennehy in Driveways––coming to terms with their patriarchal responsibilities and regrets, all of them hoping it’s not too late to still forge a meaningful influence.
Nestled in the verdant streets of Winston-Salem, this idyllic home is beginning to tear at the seams. Bill has just discovered that his son, David (Will Pullen), is cheating on Tammy with his secretary Narcedalia (Dascha Polanco) at the steel mill Bill owns. The concerned father demands his son “straighten up and fly right” when David returns drunk to his backyard guest house that Bill and his wife, Venida (Celia Weston), built for him and Tammy. At the same time, Bill’s chaotic daughter Patty (Anna Camp) has just arrived unexpectedly with her daughter (Billie Roy) to get some distance from her husband’s nefarious business, bringing her loud, foul-mouthed immaturity back into the fold.
Tammy provides a calm to this storm, making Bill and David’s lunch each morning, taking care of Patti’s daughter, and relieving Venida of household chores and errands. With her southern drawl and politeness, it’s easy to find Levy’s muted charm in these generous moments, and her kind exterior (despite her fervent protests that she has a darker, messier side) fits right into Bill and Venida’s more conservative cultural worldview, allergic to change and their children’s recent marital revelations. MacLachlan can sympathize with their state of incredulousness, weariness, and eventual intrusiveness, but at this age they’ve lost sharper moral edges and must come to distinguish their children as childlike adults––to see them as independent, responsible for their own mistakes and choices. Even if they don’t appear to be.
It’s hard to find sensitive little movies like this. MacLachlan isn’t interested in climactic resolution or one-note performances. He finds humor in mannerisms and familiar family dynamics, but he’s reluctant to show too much behind the scenes––e.g. the difficult conversations happening between Tammy and David, who suffers from PTSD, moments that a director like Jason Reitman might be eager to show. When Bill attempts to clarify his son’s duplicitous behavior, Polanco, the only non-white character, earns a chance to provide her own perspective in an exchange that doesn’t turn hysterical or draw easy argumentative lines. You can see a movie like this being made two decades earlier and dismissing her, giving Bill a condescending speech and redemptive arc. Strathairn instead wears a passionate restraint, confused and lost in his search for answers he’ll never find.
A lot of “Sundance movies” warrant the festival’s descriptive pejorative because they like to get cute, manufacturing tears and sappiness in a clinical way. They identify the beats, the plot, and maximize the emotional payoff accordingly. MacLachlan doesn’t subscribe to those conventions. In the poignant scene between Bill and Tammy that concludes the film, Strathairn doesn’t reach for a higher register, and Levy isn’t competing against him for performative points. MacLachlan has just given each a series of flaws and small, special moments that have accumulated and built to their first open, honest conversation together. Like the movie, it’s a gift.
A Little Prayer premiered at Sundance 2023 and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics.