Tommy can be called a lot of things: ex-marine. Biker. Broke. Addicted. Lost. Those all easily fit the list. And just before a call from a past acquaintance named Jaylene lights up his phone one night, he was well on his way to adding “dead” to that list, too.
There he was, stoned, staggering and dazedly staring at the business end of a revolver while sitting on the edge of his bed, when his phone screen lit up. And for some reason he glanced over … and then picked up the cell.
Jaylene, a foster care rep, tells Tommy that they just may have found his 9-year-old daughter. Turns out there was a picture of Tommy and the girl’s deceased mother tucked into the Bible that the little girl, Tulsa, always totes around. Tulsa claims that it’s got to be a picture of the father she never knew. And that God is leading her to that man. Having been the single person who could connect her with Tommy, Raylene can’t help but wonder if little Tulsa—who happens to be sharper than a set of Ginsu knives—might just be right.
All of that tumbles around in Tommy’s blurred and bruised brain on the other end of the phone line. And he finally decides, as a last grasp at something other than oblivion, to stop what he was doing. He puts the gun down, turns off the phone and stumbles to his feet.
He’s not prepared to be a father. He’s a completely incapable mess of a man. Even the idea of fatherhood makes his head hurt worse than it already does. But the next day he goes to meet up with Jaylene anyway. If nothing else, he can grab a peek at the girl and see if she looks anything like him at all. Not that he would even think of asking her into his life. But hey, curiosity killed the cat, they say.
Of course, what Tommy doesn’t know is that Tulsa is a force of nature. No, she’s a godly whirlwind. She is certain that God has finally helped her find the one person whom she’s desperately sought ever since her mother’s accidental death two years before. And even when she sees his filthy apartment and booze-soaked life, and she hears all the reasons Tommy can’t possibly do this, she blows past every obstacle.
“Don’t worry, we’ll fix you,” she tells the sad-faced man. And somehow this ex-marine finds himself just a little, tiny bit scared.
He’s afraid that she might just do it.
Tulsa has a hard time deciding whether it wants to be a light dramedy or a gritty tragedy. And at times, Tommy’s struggle with addiction isn’t portrayed very realistically. But the movie does effectively illustrate the fact that parenthood—even when it’s unexpected and imposed—can have a miraculous ability to transform a person’s life. Love, it tells us, is kind of a miracle itself, and God can use that powerfully. And Tulsa, especially, exerts that loving power on kids and adults alike.
[Spoiler Warning] Tommy eventually does turn his life around—sluffing off his many addictions and creating a good home—motivated by Tulsa and her determination. And by the time that circumstances take the wind out of her sails, Tommy is ready to step forward and do whatever it takes to love and support her. Tommy actually finds out that Tulsa isn’t his biological daughter. But by then, his love for her supersedes all else. “She will always be my daughter!” he readily declares. Tommy also opens his heart to others because of Tulsa’s promptings, including finding marital love and adopting a young boy who used to be her foster brother.
It’s quite obvious that Tulsa wants to drive home the idea that God can transform a terrible life and carry you through grave circumstance thanks to the grace and love that is at His core. And the film’s script isn’t subtle about those points, at times feeling pretty melodramatic.
But we do see a young girl clinging to her faith, no matter what happens. She prays the Lord’s Prayer, sings hymns, reads the Bible, and talks about Jesus’ offer of salvation and the hope of heaven on a regular basis. Eventually her love and loving actions do bring Tommy—who initially openly rejects the idea of a loving God—to an understanding of faith. That transformation drives him to reach for closure concerning some very painful choices he made in the past. And it helps him find the forgiveness and strength to move forward—something that he could not find before, which had led him to the brink of suicide.
Tulsa and Tommy hang a cross on his kitchen wall before a foster care interview. And he tries to fake being a believer by speaking “Christianese” with the cross-wearing interviewer.
We see Tulsa walk to a local church in spite of Tommy’s objections. And that predominantly black church welcomes the little white girl with open arms and loving embraces. The church bishop reaches, in turn, out to Tommy as well, bringing him a Bible to read. And eventually we see Tommy and Tulsa becoming a part of the church family.
In a flashback, we see Tommy and a former girlfriend discuss her unexpected pregnancy. She joyfully wants to keep the child, but he tells her to “get rid of it.” It’s also implied that Tommy dated Tulsa’s mom for a while, but left before the girl was born.
Later we see Tommy kiss Raylene. They marry (offscreen) and it’s revealed that she is pregnant. Tommy is shirtless on a couple occasions. Tulsa and Tommy briefly discuss whether or not “dancing leads to fornication.”
Tommy holds a gun, about to commit suicide before changing his mind. A woman swallows a handful of prescription pills and then walks into a deep, fast-moving brook, drowning herself. A young girl gets hit by a bus and rushed to the hospital. Her condition threatens her life and she eventually dies during surgery. We hear of a woman dying in a motorcycle accident. And a woman is arrested after physically abusing her two foster children (offscreen).
Tommy gets into a fight with four men, throwing punches and getting hit in the stomach and face.
A single use of the word “h—,” and a mention of putting someone’s “butt to work.”
Tommy is an addict. We see him drunk, swilling from large bottles of booze and beer bottles, while smoking copiously. And he mixes the alcohol with pills from a prescription bottle on at least one occasion. After Tulsa moves in, however, she seeks out his hidden stashes and dumps everything she can find in a dumpster.
Tommy flares at Tulsa’s actions but does try to cut back on his addictions, though we see him give in and pop some pills once or twice and smoke a cigarette twice, too. In fact, Tulsa uses a stash of cigarettes to goad him toward chores in one case. In the course of trying to quit all of the above, though, Tommy suffers from withdrawal and shakes with delirium tremens.
Tulsa turns into a bit of a dictator at one point (while Tommy takes on the attitude of a petulant child) as she tries to force her will on the man early on. It’s all played as humorous. In another humorous take (that doesn’t quite work) Tommy threatens young school-girl bullies.
Early on in this film, a pastor walks up to talk with Tommy, who’s obviously struggling with the broken things of his life. And he tells Tommy the story of a man who found himself shipwrecked at sea. And to make matters worse, the man’s crumbling ship then catches fire, consuming any scrap of refuge the survivor might have had. And while clinging to some bit of floating wood and throwing angry accusations of betrayal and desertion toward God, he is rescued by a passing ship.
“It’s a good thing your boat caught on fire,” the captain of the rescue ship tells him. “Otherwise, we would have never seen you.”
And that, in essence, is the same kind of story that the faith-focused Tulsa has to share. It’s a little sad; a bit sappy and cheesy; and fairly sweet overall. But it clearly points to the fact that no matter what terrible or broken spot we find ourselves in, we can find God’s hand offering rescue if we quiet our hearts and look closely enough.
God’s subtle nudges might come from a hard-headed little girl, from an incredibly painful loss, or from the loving prayers and helping hand of an earnest friend. And He might even use a sad, sappy and sweet little Christian film, too.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.