Inspired by "Papa Joe" Bradford's real life of service to at-risk kids in Tennessee, Unconditional asks the question, Is it possible to see the beauty of life and have hope for sunlight even when things are the darkest and stormiest? Children's storybook writer Samantha would've said no. But that was yesterday.
Samantha Crawford is a children's storybook writer. Or at least she was. She's lost any desire to craft colorful books of hopeful lessons and happily ever afters. Since her husband was gunned down in a dingy back alley, Sam's life has become empty, pale and brittle. Sorrow has consumed this pretty young woman to the point where she's thinking of snuffing that life out, tonight, while the rain pours down.
Young Keisha and her older brother Macon have seen their share of life's anguish too. Keisha, who is 7, watched her mother murdered right in front of her. It was such a horrific sight that it stole the young girl's voice away, and she has to scratch out anything she wants to say on a little pad of paper. Her brother acts like he doesn't care. But he does. And to prove it, he takes to stealing food from the nearby convenience mart, tonight, while the rain pours down.
Joe Bradford has had more misery in his life than any of them. He nearly died in prison after getting caught doing a stupid online prank. And he's lost the use of both kidneys to boot. In spite of all the medications and dialysis, Joe knows that he's slipping closer and closer to a painful and fateful end, possibly tonight, while the rain pours down.
Of all these sufferers, Joe is the only one who knows a simple truth about making it through ache and agony. And so, as he desperately plugs himself into the dialysis machine, he grits out a call for help: a soft plea that God's hand might somehow move tonight, while the rain pours down.
And It does.
God's hand moves for them all.
Sam may be depressed and forlorn, but that doesn't stop her from leaping up to help when she sees that young Keisha has been hit by a car. She rushes the girl to the hospital. And it's there that she runs into her old friend Joe. It's this combination of "happenstance" that begins a process of healing for all involved.
As a boy, Joe dreamed of being a samurai hero. As an adult he's physically limited, and so the leaping samurai part is a problem. But he certainly is a hero to a group of young school kids who look to him for guidance, encouragement, love and even bags of food that they can take home to their dirt-poor families. He spurs them on to good grades and wise choices, assuring them that they're "never alone." And boy do they know it. One troubled kid even tearfully asks Joe to be his father.
Joe sums up his philosophy of never giving up in the tough times by saying, "One thing I learned along the way is that it ain't a dead end if it takes you somewhere you needed to go." Sam joins in (or maybe I should say she slowly gets dragged in) and helps with the kids. She receives an even bigger blessing in return than they.
Through a positive turn of events and Sam's help, Keisha regains her voice. Joe talks of two times that Sam saved his life. Macon admits and apologizes for his theft and other poor choices.
Clearly attempting to illustrate the awfulness of racism, Joe is told to "stay with his own kind" while in prison. When a black inmate is holding a white prisoner, Joe is told to "spit in this cracker's face." He refuses.
Joe speaks of being in solitary confinement and reaching out in faith to God. Through a colorful cartoon bird's story, Sam paints a picture of life's storm clouds and fears. And when the little bird breaks through the dark clouds, it finds that the sun is still shining above, raising the question, "What if God's love is like the sun, constant and unchanged?"
A suspected killer admits to the spiritual impact someone's kindness and sacrifice had on his life.
When young Keisha starts learning how to verbally communicate again, her foster mother rejoices. But she humorously laments the change as well, for she had told God she would stop smoking and drinking if He'd give the girl back her voice.
We get a flashback to a tender kiss at sunset. Sam's seen in bed wearing a camisole.
We see Sam's husband, wounded and dying in a rainy alley after being mugged. By way of both animation and live action we see bullets fly. In prison, Joe gets into a brawl, battering several inmates with repeated and vicious blows to the head while trying to protect an old man. (Blood covers one man's face.) The elderly prisoner has his palm sliced open with a knife (onscreen). As mentioned, Keisha is accidentally hit by a car (offscreen).
A young Joe is bitten by a rattlesnake. Sam attempts to help him to safety, but he collapses from the effect of the venom. In grade school, Joe punches out a bully who's pushing Sam around.
We see Joe's blood staining the side of his shirt, and later he's unconscious in a pool of his own blood because of his failing kidneys.
We're told a brief story of Keisha watching her mother's murder. We see her hiding in a cabinet in a burning kitchen.
Sam sits with a gun, contemplating suicide. She goes so far as putting it up to her chin. (The film points out what a foolish waste that choice would have been.)
Crude or Profane Language
A school bully spits the racist slur "coon" at young Joe. In prison, "cracker" gets thrown around a few times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Keisha and Macon's foster mom smokes and drinks on a regular basis. Another border in the low-income "commons" smokes cigars. We see Joe with a bag full of prescription drugs; he gulps some of them down.
Other Negative Elements
A white police detective exposes his racism by saying that nothing good can come out of the mostly black "projects." He compares black children to "pit bull pups."
When Sam first gets to know Keisha and Macon, the young boy is always trying to "play" her for treats like candy bars and pizza. Later, when Sam needs Macon to keep his mouth shut about a stupid choice he saw her make, she bribes him with the same. Sam spots a guy she believes to be her husband's killer and foolishly breaks into his house to look for evidence.
During the credits, Unconditional tells us that 28% of all children in the world live without their biological father, and that 24.7 million live in the U.S. The movie's mission? To stir up interest in helping and caring for the most unfortunate of those kids, using a true story as its inspiration.
But it does more than "just" that.
Employing the considerable talents of actors Lynn Collins (John Carter, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Michael Ealy (Underworld: Awakening, For Colored Girls), Unconditional shows us a woman's journey from the deepest despair to the edges of real joy. It lets us revel in the (sometimes lifesaving) gift that friendship can be. It affirms the value that fathers have in families. It gives us a glimpse of God's love and His grace and His welcoming, open arms.
There are a few forced moments. The logic falls apart at times. (As it does in so many films.) But much like one of Sam's cheerful little picture books, this little film's light-but-deft message of consistent grace and loving service fits very naturally amidst its color and charm.
At one point, a character shares her philosophy that "there truly is enough love to go around … all you have to do is share it." Unconditional gives that simple idea an appealing and pleasing coat of cinematic paint.