By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
Elf. A Christmas Story. Home Alone. It's a Wonderful Life. Miracle on 34th Street. The movies we watch around the holidays get us in the yuletide mood and often lift our spirits. Though I'm a fan of all those films and more, there's a nagging problem: most of our beloved Christmas movies have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. One overlooked gem helps fill that gap, 2005's States of Grace, which, I might add, is one of my top five all-time favorite films.
Also, and I can't stress this enough, this isn't a “Mormon movie,” but rather a broadly Christian tale that happens to feature two Latter-day Saint missionaries, along with a Pentecostal preacher, an actress raised in a Christian household, a repentant gangbanger, and a Baptist supporting character. The film was written and directed by Richard Dutcher, who also made God’s Army and the excellentBrigham City.States of Grace is unquestionably a sincere expression of love for Jesus Christ.
It’s also a commentary on the prejudices that tear us down and the doctrines that lift us up. Tragically overlooked, the film deserves a large audience, though it’s certainly not for everyone. The characters are portrayed as imperfect and flawed. The film explores with heartbreaking depth the bitter sorrow of sin, to the point that I know of some viewers who didn’t finish the film and thus missed out on its entire message: we all need redemption, which comes through the Savior's loving sacrifice for us.
Not meant to be a representative snapshot of missionary life like The Best Two Years or Errand of Angels, States of Grace instead is a parable about of the depth and reach of the Atonement, its meaning amidst the cruelty and corruption of the real world, and ultimately, the true significance of Christmas. This is first-rate independent filmmaking that challenges and rewards the viewer, and while it lags slightly in the middle, the third act is a knockout. I recommend watching it when you can turn off your phones, put the kids to bed, and immerse yourself in the story. States of Grace is available on YouTube, but I recommend buying it for best quality and to support the artists.
IS IT OKAY FOR YOUR FAMILY?
States of Grace is rated PG-13, a rating which it earns with intense depictions of gang violence and tastefully handled, yet nevertheless mature, subject matter. Several quick shots of women in bikinis, though realistically establishing the film's Southern California setting, are arguably unnecessary
ANY WORTHWHILE MESSAGES?
No person is perfect. People of different faiths can develop respect and show love for one another (and for each other's beliefs). Renouncing violence can lead to peace and a change of heart. Truly following Jesus requires love, forgiveness, and non-judgment.
“OUT OF THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE [or four] WITNESSES…”
“Every genre has a milestone classic, and with States of Grace, contemporary Christian drama can finally claim one of its own. This upright and thoughtful film boasts a level of quality and noble purpose that Hollywood has all but abandoned.” – THE SEATTLE TIMES
“States of Grace is a challenging work. To say that [it] takes some unexpected turns is to understate. But it also provides a lot of food for thought. At times the film is equal parts drama and thriller, and it goes much further in exploring the fairly weighty concepts of faith and redemption than did [other religious films]. Consequently, it's probably the best movie to emerge from LDS-themed filmmaking. ***1/2″ – DESERET NEWS
“It's a veritable epic of spiritual drama in which every character is well-drawn and well-played…This is the first Mormon Cinema film to exist in a truly multi-cultural, multi-religious world without making a big deal about it….What is most extraordinary about the film is that it addresses mature spiritual themes with such astonishing depth…A truly beautiful final sequence [shows] that Jesus Christ is the way, and that while some sins seem irreparable, such is not the case. States of Grace is unabashedly Christian in its message, and it's the most faith-affirming, uplifting film I've seen in a long time. Grade: A-.” Eric Snider, FILM.COM
“A devastatingly powerful and profound look at the nature of faith. States of Grace aims beyond missionary life, even beyond Mormonism, as it considers the power of religion to change lives, and the self-destructive forces that remain an inextricable part of the human condition. Embracing the kind of brutal honesty that rarely leaves audiences undivided, Dutcher has tapped a fount of truth that is neither sanctimonious nor sentimental, an achievement further magnified by the fearless efforts of a uniformly gifted cast. The distinction between plot and subplot grows increasingly less meaningful as Dutcher deftly weaves them all into a powerhouse finale all but guaranteed to leave no dry eye in the house. Four stars.” – BOX OFFICE MAGAZINE
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.