Film Review: The Grace of Jake

Still waters run not that deep in this passably pleasant, gospel-driven heartland drama.
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As blandly palatable as unsweetened apple pie, spiritual drama The Grace of Jake still is surprisingly salty for a sermon-filled redemption fable about a blues-singing ne’er-do-well who finds love and religion in small-town Arkansas. That gritty earthiness serves as a virtue in this debut feature written, directed and produced by Grammy-nominated music-video director Chris Hicky. A few well-timed curse words and an off-color joke or two—along with the picturesque farmlands and beautifully decaying churches and filling stations of the film’s rural Bible Belt setting—add welcome doses of authenticity to an otherwise contrived depiction of a drifting, former-addict ex-con, Jake Haynes (Jake La Botz), who blows like a twister into sleepy Palestine, Arkansas. Perhaps Jake’s less a twister than just a good, stiff breeze that whips up trouble for a moment, shifts a few stones off their foundations, then settles down calmly without much having changed.  

Jake is introduced not in perilous motion, but stopped on the side of the road, posed with his guitar case by his side and his feet up on the front seat of his broken-down Grand Ville convertible. Given a lift into town by proud redneck Alvah (Lew Temple), laconic Jake neither appears nor acts like a man hell-bent on revenge, although he announces early and often that vengeance is his purpose. He’s arrived with a gun in his pocket, murder on his mind, and secrets that start spilling out practically from the moment a chance encounter with kindhearted laborer Booster (Andrew H. Walker) leads Jake to the town’s struggling black church, the Faith on the Hill Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church of the Holy Spirit.

Shepherded by the right Reverend Lovely (Dorien Wilson), the flock at Faith on the Hill is struggling of late due mostly to the ongoing harassment of irascible crop-duster pilot Henry (Michael Beck), who, for some reason, has crashed more than one of his planes into the church’s modest clapboard building. Reverend Lovely’s church is in disarray, its congregants scattered and its connection to the community ebbing. If only some savior might come along and, channeling the electrifying spirit of the Holy Ghost, restore the worshipers’ dented faith. As faith and good fortune would have it, Jake hasn’t brought just his gun with him to Palestine, he has also brought along his gift of song. Once Reverend Lovely and his congregation hear Jake’s bluesy, heartfelt testimony, and lay eyes on his clean-scrubbed golden-boy visage, it’s clear to everyone that this white boy will be the inspiration that rekindles all their dreams.

La Botz, also a composer and accomplished singer-songwriter, boasts a rousingly soulful vocal delivery and contributes a few toe-tapping gospel tunes. But he doesn’t necessarily wield the angelic pipes, lightning charisma or drop-dead good looks that might send an entire town’s tongues a-wagging, even a town this small. A scene at Faith on the Hill in which Jake’s glorious singing has an instantaneous awakening effect on everyone within earshot would feel like overkill even if one of the uplifted churchgoers beaming back at him weren’t played by former “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks, a famously powerful singer in her own right. Credit to Ms. Sparks—portraying Reverend Lovely’s lovely daughter, Nicole—for stretching beyond musical fare like her feature debut, the unnecessary Sparkle remake, to take on a role that requires no singing but simply a delicate dramatic touch. She’s a bright presence, woefully underserved by a character with only one dimension: a flickering attraction to Jake that might just be reticence about her romance with Booster.

Film and TV vet Wilson fares better in a meatier role as the Reverend, who’s not just a man of the cloth, but also a man of the world. At one point admitting to a long-ago extramarital affair, the reverend explains of his also-married mistress that she was “a delicate piece of fruit dying on the vine. She came to me for a sip of water.” Wilson wraps in sage sincerity several such thudding lines that might have toppled a less able actor. Essentially, he mines a character out of a cliché, as does Chad Morgan, fierce yet fragile as a young mother who flirts tentatively with Jake, while embarking on a romance with town grump Henry.

Michael Beck, a thousand miles from Xanadu, is appropriately gruff and grizzled as Henry, but the film is too busy marking each transition with slow pans across fields of crops and grasses to bring the character fully into the narrative. Like several other characters, his needs and motives aren’t delineated so much as declared. Shooting much of the film with a shaky handheld camera, director Hicky employs several music-video-style flourishes of nonlinear music montages and cutaways to slow-motion flashes of characters engaged in courtship. Most of it is lit impeccably, but one wishes for four or five fewer shots of crop thrashers plaintively mowing towards the horizon and a more compelling story.

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