SXSW FILM 2016
By Linc Leifeste | March 12, 2016
Director: Jake Mahaffy
Writer: Jake Mahaffy
Starring: David Harewood, Edwina Findley, Kathy Smith, RaJay Chandler, Helen Bowman
I kicked off my 2016 South by Southwest Film Fest experience with Jake Mahaffy’s Free In Deed, the tale of one man’s attempt to find salvation from his own personal hell, who in the process finds himself even deeper down in the hole. The film introduces us to Abe Wilkins (David Harewood) as he’s answering an altar call at a small, urban Pentecostal church. We’re never given much of his backstory but are instead immediately viscerally immersed in his world. Throughout the film we are given enough glimpses (him being served papers, his working dead end jobs, him being hassled by the police) to know that not many things have broken his way in his life.
In his new church home, it’s clear that Wilkins has found, if not new hope, the faint possibility of new hope. He’s seemingly accepted as a member and is even allowed a prominent role, praying over and healing members of the congregation. But it’s also clear from both Harewood’s brilliant, understated performance (it’s mostly in the eyes) that he’s not fully an insider, not necessarily a true believer. And then there’s the odd matter of his repeatedly answering altar calls despite having already been saved, but nobody seems to hold it against him.
It’s when a single mother (Edwina Findley) who is at wit’s end, finds herself reaching out to the church as her last hope for some kind of healing for her autistic son (Rajay Chandler), that Wilkins’ attempts at faith healing will lead to his undoing. As Wilkins repeatedly holds hours-long prayer sessions over the boy in hopes of healing him, the sexual tension between mother and healer grows while the stresses of unanswered prayers for healing multiply. Based on a true story and featuring a stellar supporting cast of non-actors, there are no happy endings to be found in this thought-provoking and haunting film and little light to be found amid the darkness of people abandoned by society, only to be ultimately betrayed by a faith they’ve turned to as a last means of escape.