It might not be accurate to call Like Dandelion Dust, which was scheduled to open in select cities on Sept. 24, a Christian movie. True, it is based on a novel by Karen Kingsbury, the prolific author Time dubbed the "queen of Christian Fiction," and it was produced by Bobby and Kevin Downes, the brothers behind a number of end-of-days, Bible-thumping flicks. The plot even includes the obligatory invite to church. Yet this is where genre-convention ends.
There are no altar-call moments. The two Christian characters not only don't solve the protagonists' problems, they compound them (a fairly realistic twist). And as for that church invite, the main characters accept, but not for the reasons viewers might expect. By avoiding many of the tried-and-true markers of a Christian movie, Dandelion Dust, rated PG-13 for scenes depicting alcoholism and domestic violence, represents real progress in a field that is too often marked by tin-eared, ham-handed filmmaking.
To start with, we see why it is worth investing in and casting the best actors available, even if their names aren't recognizable from an '80s sitcom. Barry Pepper (The Green Mile) plays Rip, an abusive alcoholic who is released from prison to discover that his wife placed their son for adoption six years earlier. Pepper brings a level of compassion rarely developed in such roles. From his mumbling, bleary-eyed arrest to his determination to build his family out of another's broken pieces, Pepper never strikes a false note. He shows us a man who is weak, troubled, and selfish, but not soulless. Though the script never says so explicitly, Pepper's nuanced performance suggests that however deep in the mire Rip may be, he is redeemable.
As Jack Campbell, the adoptive father desperate to hold on to his son, Cole Hauser (Paparazzi) also cultivates a character that is more complex than he probably appeared on paper. Plenty of movie mothers have wrenched the hearts of women over the years. Hauser's portrayal of a man trying to live up to the masculine ideal of family protector in a situation beyond his control will resonate with fathers. As the birth and adoptive mothers, Oscar winner Mira Sorvino and Kate Levering (Drop Dead Diva) don't quite reach their costars' level of excellence, but they're still miles beyond what audiences have come to expect from Christian productions.
However, most of the credit should probably go to director Jon Dunn, who takes a story that could have easily become a Lifetime movie-of-the-week with a redemptive theme tacked on and handles it with sensitivity and subtlety. He takes his time, trusting the viewer to understand his characters without drawing them in big, clichéd gestures and to connect with them despite their flaws. By showing the people in his movie more respect than slotting them into categories of the saved/good ones and the lost/bad ones, his film stands a much better chance than countless others that came before it of reaching an audience outside the pews.
One particular scene stands out as an example of Dunn's restraint. When a court order forces Jack to turn his son over to a social worker who will then take the boy to his birth parents, Dunn doesn't show Jack falling on his son's neck in sobs. Instead, we see him sitting silently, stroking the boy's bare feet, trying to control his emotions. It is a small moment, all the more effective for its stillness.
This isn't to say the movie is perfect. One tension-filled plot point is introduced too late so that there's a rush to bring it to a conclusion. And even Dunn can't resist getting a little mawkish toward the end, but this is easy to forgive in view of the whole. Between Hallmark and reality, Like Dandelion Dust almost always manages to convey reality.