|The new movie “Unconditional” is a powerful tale of loss and renewal. It shows the sobering effects of crime on both victims and criminals, but it also shows how their lives can be transformed, even when everything seems hopeless. And it clearly demonstrates that God is the one who transforms those lives.
The film begins with a voice-over from a young woman named Sam Crawford. Sam, who writes and illustrates children’s books, uses drawings to tell the story of her beloved husband’s unsolved murder. “That killer didn’t just take Billy’s life,” she tells us. “He took mine, too. . . . I used to dream of telling stories, but I never dreamed that mine would end like this.”
But Sam’s story is really just beginning. The night that her despair almost drives her to suicide, she’s stopped at the last minute when she witnesses a little girl getting hit by a car in the street nearby. After rushing the child and her brother to the hospital, Sam unexpectedly runs into her best friend from childhood, Joe Bradford, who has become a youth leader in the children’s community.
Joe, who did time in prison for robbery and nearly killed a fellow prisoner, had a spiritual epiphany while there and turned his life around. He’s now known as “Papa Joe” to the children of his neighborhood, many of whom don’t have fathers of their own.
Sam is irresistibly drawn into the lives of Joe and the children he loves. But when she discovers that a member of their community might be the person who killed her husband, she has a terrible decision to make.
“Unconditional” is based on a true story—the kind of story that Prison Fellowship has seen unfold thousands of times. The real Joe Bradford runs a ministry for at-risk children in Nashville, called Elijah’s Heart. He became friends with J. Wesley Legg and Jason Atkins, who ran an annual short film competition and were looking to make their first full-length movie. And their friendship led to Joe’s story being brought to the big screen.
It’s a story that is well worth telling. It honestly portrays the poverty, racism, and family breakdown that derail so many children’s lives, but it also shows the hope that loving and selfless people like Joe Bradford offer them.
“Unconditional” has received an unusually high level of critical acclaim for a faith-based film. The “Dallas Morning News” reviewer called it “a message film that doesn’t taste like medicine.” Variety’s critic wrote that the film is “blessed with the saving graces of persuasive performances, handsome production values and some undeniably affecting moments of spiritual uplift.”
Nonetheless, since its opening a couple of weeks ago, “Unconditional” has struggled to find an audience in a crowded market. I recommend that you go and see it if you can. Joe Bradford said in a statement before the movie came out, “My dream is that ‘Unconditional’ inspires cities to unite in love to rescue one of our most precious commodities: thousands of at-risk and fatherless children torn by poverty and oppression.” Every bit of support that “Unconditional” can get will help make that dream a reality.