David Straithairn shines in this North Carolina-set family drama, picked up by Sony at Sundance

A Little Prayer

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘A Little Prayer’

Dir/scr/prod: Angus MacLachlan. US. 2022. 91mins

As a writer and, latterly, director, Angus MacLachlan has kept it small, focusing on his native North Carolina: he’s best known for writing Junebug back in 2005, and directing Abundant Acreage Available, which Martin Scorsese executive produced, in 2017. These are detailed, credible, family-focused films, and you can certainly draw a line between Junebug, which catapulted Amy Adams to attention when it premiered at Sundance, and A Little Prayer, which also features a pregnancy – two, in fact – and a perky, naive young woman who isn’t being treated right. This, though, is David Straithairn’s film, playing a kindly if terse ex-military man, the scion of a family-run sheet-cutting business in MacLachlan’s native Winston-Salem whose son is going off the rails.

This could be an Anne Tyler novel, were it set in Baltimore

There is much to enjoy in watching MacLachlan’s A Little Prayer play out, and an equal amount of wisdom to be gleaned from it. The performances are tight and finely balanced, given the amount of drama experienced by one small family in an economical 91-minute running time; the film never over-reaches nor outstays its welcome. Sony picked up this small-scale indie at Sundance, and it should draw quiet word of mouth and warm reviews, even though it’s the kind of under-stated production that can struggle in the current commercial marketplace. In the home straight, though, there’s a warm reception waiting for it on streaming platforms.

There’s an air of the past that flows through this picture, which opens to the sound of a spiritual being sung through a Winston-Salem neighbourhood. Tammy (Jane Levy) wakes up in bed trapped in a tight embrace from her husband David (Will Cullen), who is still clothed, and moves to the main house to greet her in-laws Bill (Straithairn) and Venida (the wonderful Celia Weston). Later we’ll see Venida, in pilgrim costume, leading tour groups and talking about the town’s founding Moravian Brethren, who buried their dead in sequence, with flat stones symbolising equality in death. There’s certainly a sense of life’s cycle in A Little Prayer.

Take, for example, Bill, a Vietnam veteran and the head, after his own father, of the family-owned sheet-cutting business. His son David not only shares his home, and war-time experience, but the pair work together at the factory every day. Cullen delivers an under-stated performance as the slippery David, all southern charm and hail-fellow-well-met, but almost certainly, and never-to-the-camera, suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress. Definitely, he’s been having an affair with the company secretary – another hard-to-pin-down character played with alternating softness and steel by Dascha Polanco. 

For the upright Bill, who has tried to bring up his family with values and dignity, this is a grievous turn of events (in a shade of his military background, he tells his son to ‘straighten up and fly right’.) Moreso because he enjoys his friendship with the under-appreciated Tammy so much. He doesn’t tell Venida his suspicions, but she sees different problems to him. Things take a turn for the noisy when their daughter, Patti (Anna Camp), and grandchild suddenly pitch up on the front drive. She’s in trouble too, and needs to move back in at home for a while.

MacLachlan presents a slightly homespun picture — this could be an Anne Tyler novel, were it set in Baltimore – in which the company’s weekly night out is at the local VFW veterans bar for drinks and dancing. You can get the sense of community, of generational differences, of an old, well-lived-in marriage and the fracturing of younger partnerships.

Although technical work is economical, Scott Miller’s visuals are entirely apt, as is the score by Greg Danner, underlying the sense of a modest, tight-knit community. What marks A Little Prayer out is the quality of its script and strength of its delivery. It may be a showcase for Strathairn, but the whole team has built that support. 

Production companies: Gladness Partners

International sales: Sony Pictures

Producers: Lauren Vilchik, Max A. Butler, Angus MacLachlan

Screenplay: Angus MacLachlan

Cinematography: Scott Miller

Production design: Diana Rice

Editing: Tricia Holmes

Music: Greg Danner

Main cast: David Strathairn, Jane Levy, Celia Weston, Will Pullen, Anna Camp, Dascha Polanco