As A Little Prayer begins, the voice of an unseen singer floats into the still morning air of a strikingly leafy neighborhood. The spirituals she belts, heard a few times during this quiet drama, take on the role of a disembodied character, sparking responses from the other characters that help to define who they are. Some hear only noise, an intrusion, something to complain about. But for Bill and his daughter-in-law, Tammy, searching souls beautifully played by David Strathairn and Jane Levy, the songs are enchanting, a mystery to savor.
Bill and Tammy are, as she puts it, kindred spirits, but that’s not to say they’re fully in sync. Their bond is the heart of writer-director Angus MacLachlan’s understated film, yet so too is the gap between what Bill wants to believe and the way things are. At the helm of his third feature, after Goodbye to All That and Abundant Acreage Available, MacLachlan examines generational bonds and rifts, the fallout of trauma and the opportunity for change. As in his screenplay for Junebug, the film that put him on the map as a film writer and made Amy Adams a star, the setting for this comparatively restrained tale of family secrets is North Carolina — specifically, MacLachlan’s hometown of Winston-Salem. (Fellow North Carolinian Ramin Bahrani — Goodbye Solo, 99 Homes — serves as an executive producer.)
A Little Prayer
The Bottom Line
Small-scale and finely tuned.
With fuss-free camerawork by Scott Miller, fluent editing by Tricia Holmes and lived-in design contributions from Diana Rice and Jena Moody, the filmmaking is straightforward, the backstory kept to a bare and effective minimum. Tammy, it’s suggested, grew up in hard-knocks Kentucky. She now works part-time at Target and shares her in-laws’ back house with their son, David (Will Pullen). Imbued with radiant humility and a calm inner fire by Levy, Tammy is the old soul to David’s childish man. When we first see them, together in bed, David has entwined himself around her, but the emotional distance between them is evident. He sleeps and she thinks, listening to the unknown singer (the voice belongs to Martha Bassett).
In contrast, over breakfast in the modest main house, Tammy and Bill banter like old friends. He’s the hands-on owner of a sheet metal company, founded by his father, where David also works. They’re both military vets, and treating their staff to weekly nights out at the VFW Post has become a ritual. The essential Celia Weston plays Bill’s wife, Venida, a discerning woman of strong opinions and wry observations who isn’t happy about the long hours her son is putting in at the office. She assumes that her husband is the taskmaster to blame. But Bill knows the truth, that David and office assistant Narcedalia (Dascha Polanco, of Orange Is the New Black) are having an affair, his suspicions confirmed by Narcedalia’s friend Bethany (Ashley Shelton, terrific). Confronting his tight-lipped son and admonishing him to “straighten up and fly right,” Bill only pushes him farther away.
With Bill keeping what he knows about David from Venida and Tammy, and the latter hiding worries about a possible pregnancy, there’s a lot brewing beneath the low-key surface. No one raises a voice to shatter the illusion that all is well — until the unannounced arrival of Bill and Venida’s daughter, Patti (Anna Camp), with her young, mostly uncommunicative daughter, Hadley (Billie Roy). A disrupter extraordinaire, Patti is fleeing a troubled marriage in Virginia, not for the first time. She arrives with no money or job but was sure to pack a metal detector so she can search for treasure in her parents’ backyard. Camp — a returning MacLachlan troupe member, as is Weston — channels a noisy, chaotic narcissism that makes Patti the polar opposite of Tammy.
Given that both his children are walking disasters, one bottled up and the other flailing, it’s only natural that Bill begins to wonder if his parenting is to blame. Strathairn’s fine and subtle performance exudes decency and old-school morality along with a certain cluelessness. Convinced that he’s one step ahead of everybody, Bill actually has some serious catching up to do — about a woman’s autonomy, for starters, and a former soldier’s psychic wounds. As Weston’s knowing Venida tells him through tears, “My heartbreak and your heartbreak are just not the most important things here.”
Bill’s resolve to clean up his kids’ messes is as much about soothing his conscience as it is about making their lives better. Just look at the way he hands his adult daughter a check: a masterful few seconds in which Strathairn turns a wordless gesture into an expression of faux selflessness entangled with sincere hope — a little prayer.
In an eloquent transition between scenes, MacLachlan moves from a graveyard to a funeral home. At the cemetery, Venida, in Colonial-era garb as a tour guide, explains the Moravians’ egoless approach to burial. Outside the funeral home, David chats with a fellow veteran (Steve Coulter) after services for another vet, and there’s nothing sentimental in their words about the lasting effects of war. The writer-director weaves in such details without reducing people to types defined by political prejudices or oversimplifications. He doesn’t extoll or condescend, and he’s not interested in flaunting hot-button topics, though he does explore their day-to-day reality; as a woman in a medical office (Keisha Lashawn Tillis) tells Tammy in the film’s most charged scene, “People always have their strong opinions.”
The emotional impact of A Little Prayer doesn’t so much detonate as unfold, a series of quiet epiphanies, well-observed and elegant in their awkward yearning. For Tammy and Bill, these involve barefaced and ungentle disclosures, the gospel hymns of a neighborhood singer and, in the lovely closing sequence, the vision of a 19th century painter. Most of the characters in this open-ended and cautiously hopeful drama are trying to hold on to something. At its center are two people who, reaching for the ethereal in the everyday, are learning to let go.