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Movie Review: Forgiving the Franklins

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The biggest problem with Forgiving the Franklins is its promotional campaign, which describes it as “part morality tale, part sex romp.” It’s not titillating or puerile enough to fall into the latter category, and it lacks the subtle nuances that would elevate it to the status of the former. More accurately, Forgiving the Franklins is a none-too-subtle indictment against repression and hypocrisy in Fundamentalist religion.

To make his point, writer/director/producer Jay Floyd paints the movie in broad strokes of bright suburban landscapes and cartoonish characters. At the film’s beginning, the Franklins are stalwart members of their small, religious community—Dad Frank (Robertson Dean) is a lawyer, mom Betty (Teresa Willis) a doting housewife, son Brian (Vince Pavia) a high-school football hero and daughter Caroline (Aviva) a star cheerleader. They’re a Norman Rockwall, picture-perfect family, conservative even by their neighbors’ standards. It’s all a façade, though, masking lives of deep-seeded repression.

Their lives take an abrupt turn en route to a church bake sale when the family car is broadsided by a truck, propelling all but Caroline into a collective three-day coma and an encounter with Jesus himself. In the netherworld they find themselves in, Jesus (Pop Padilla) is nothing like what they imagined him to be. He’s rough-hewn and cynical, spending his time chopping down crosses. The cross is a bad marketing ploy that actually represents the worst day of his life, not the version of salvation the Franklins embrace. Frustrated (or inspired) by their judgmental attitude, he literally plucks Original Sin from their heads, and sends them back to this mortal coil to live their lives. Ominously, three crosses appear on the horizon as they are sent back to Earth. “Those things pop up like weeds,” Jesus shrugs.

Awakening from their coma, (simultaneously, oddly enough) Frank, Bett,y and Brian return to their suburban home with a new outlook on life. They’re completely uninhibited and happy, which immediately puts them at odds with Caroline, who emerged from the wreck with a bum hip, forcing her to walk with a cane, and ruining her dream of being the perfect cheerleader. The neighbors also find their behavior peculiar, but at first dismiss it as lingering disorientation as the result of their collective coma.

It’s at this point that Forgiving the Franklins morphs from a contemporary send-up of fifties sitcoms to a stab at social commentary. Unfettered from the constraints of religious repression, the Franklins unwittingly challenge the mores of their tight-knit community, merely by being open about themselves and the world around them. This puts them on a collision course with their neighbors, and culminates with insidious, tragic results. Caroline serves as the center-weight in the subtle conflict, and ultimately proves to be the film’s last bastion of hope.

What with its inherently controversial themes, Forgiving the Franklins is the sort of movie that’s the darling of film festivals. It’s also the sort of first time effort that explores its themes gallantly, albeit clumsily, in many spots. That being said, Joe Floyd’s directorial debut also works for the most part. His pacing is unflagging, and his understanding of the psychological use of color signals the coming of a director destined to go places.

When all is said and done, Forgiving the Franklins is a movie worth seeing. It’s a little film exploring big issues, peeking into the contradictions between religion and spirituality. More importantly, it holds up those conflicts to the light, and forces us to laugh at ourselves in the process.

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