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Rusty Joiner tries to work out his religious doubts on the heavy bag in "Voiceless."

Maybe you saw “God Is a Boob Man,” Saturday Night Live’s parody of contemporary Christian movies, when it aired this past spring. After sitting through God’s Not Dead (the original and the sequel), October Baby, Saving Christmas, and too many others, I can say that the TV show had the measure of these Middle American films: cheerful, unrealistic, paranoid, overlit, overwhelmingly white, and hellbent on painting anyone unlike its devout main characters as The Enemy. There were Christian films like this before, but it has gotten particularly bad in recent years. Voiceless, the anti-abortion drama that opens this weekend at AMC Hulen, may seem like the latest of these, but it isn’t. With some relief I find that this film has a gritty Northeastern urban setting with a modicum of nonwhite characters, and it plays with the element of doubt with its main character. If only it added up to a good movie.

Rusty Joiner stars as Jesse, a Special Forces soldier who comes home from the Middle East to his wife (Jocelyn Cruz) and a job as community outreach director at a church on what looks like the most depressing street in Philadelphia. What really depresses him, though, is the women’s health clinic across the street that performs abortions. His own pastor (James Russo) and other members of his church urge him not to make trouble, but Jesse tends to side with the old Scottish lady (Susan Moses) whose husband founded the church but who no longer attends, saying, “They’ve got a murder mill across the way, and no one will do anything about it!”

The movie is savvy enough to suggest that Jesse’s anger with the clinic may be coming from some other place, specifically his troubled marriage. Some of the women he harasses outside the clinic aren’t even pregnant but simply need the place for medical services, and when he counsels one woman (Karen Vicks) to take in her teenage daughter’s baby, she fires back: “What are you gonna do, send a few boxes of diapers?” Yet the film definitively falls apart in its final third, as Jesse’s violent confrontation with a man (John G. Pavelec) who wants to terminate his wife’s pregnancy is ridiculous in every possible way. The movie firmly comes down on the “abortion is murder” side of the debate, and it resolves with Jesse swaying his church into protesting peacefully outside the clinic. Fair enough, but what happens the next day when the protest is over and the place is still operating? Writer-director Pat Necerato doesn’t say, because he’s written himself into a corner.

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Voiceless may be atypical of evangelical Christian movies in some ways, but it is further evidence of what Saturday Night Live and I have observed, which is that such films have grown positively uninterested in offering anything to audiences who don’t already share their beliefs. The shame is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Steve Taylor’s Blue Like Jazz and Will Bakke’s Believe Me were dexterous films that couched their beliefs in sly, self-aware humor and engaged the world on its own terms without necessarily compromising. However, too many of their colleagues preach to their own choirs, and as long as that continues, Christian filmmaking will remain in a dead end.

[box_info]Voiceless
Starring Rusty Joiner and Jocelyn Cruz. Written and directed by Pat Necerato. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]

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