Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubany, Peter Krause, Gabriel Bateman, Alfred Molina
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…delivers its message straight down the middle, which, being neither hot nor cold, lands tepid.
Saint Judy is based on the true story of Judith L. Wood, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, whose efforts to win political asylum for her client, a young Afghani woman facing deportation (and a probable death by the Taliban back in her homeland), saw her arguing the case on the assumption that asylum law in the United States should include not only political dissidents and war zone refugees but also women, as a protected group.
A fascinating story and topic, though when it’s pushed through the extruder of the filmmaking process, results vary. As the film opens, we’re introduced to Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) as Judy Wood, a hard-headed, former Public Prosecutor, who has relocated cities to be close to her douchey ex-husband Matthew (Peter Krause), in sharing custody of their son Alex (Gabriel Bateman).
Working initially for Ray Hernandez (Alfred Molina) at his Immigration Law firm, Judy is told in no uncertain terms to process the cases as expediently as possible and keep the sausage factory going. In defiance of the dehumanising aspects of her job, Judy takes on the asylum application of young Afghani woman Asefa Ashwari (Leem Lubany), who explains that she faces certain death from the Taliban, should she return to Afghanistan. The case ultimately sets legal precedent.
The overall feel and tone here is one of polished inauthenticity, it also isn’t above resorting to soapy tactics to wring emotion out of the story, which comes as no surprise given director Sean Hanish has previously made two Lifetime channel films, meaning (for whatever reason) that the performances have a certain pitch, the style of shooting has a particularly static and well-lit aesthetic and there’s a deodorised, non-challenging sheen to the whole thing that feels very ‘faith based’.
Story-wise, it riffs on the Erin Brockovich setup and rat-tat-tat interplay of Albert Finney and Julia Roberts and mimics that with Molina and Monaghan’s workplace dynamics and banter which is melded with an overly familiar plot structure featuring the ‘maverick lawyer’ archetype, meaning: it’s predictable.
As written, the characters feel slight, though the seasoned cast deploy their collective charisma to successfully inject life into the story and the earnest Monaghan really does sell the journey, which, as it is, swings wildly between weapons-grade cringe (there’s a pre-court, slo-mo pop ballad sequence that is so ill-conceived and leaden, it stops the story dead in its tracks) and genuinely engaging and moving.
In Saint Judy, there’s a tale of immigrants caught in a legal grinder (like Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor) smooshed together with a bog-standard court procedural, neither of which crystallize into anything remotely singular or clear-eyed. In dealing with a topic like this, a filmmaker needs to be willing to beat up the audience a little, to push, prod and cajole. Instead of shaking us by the lapels, Saint Judy delivers its message straight down the middle, which, being neither hot nor cold, lands tepid.