Playing it safe
“Freetown” has a lot going for it – a compelling story, fascinating characters, some stunning cinematography—but it is undone by a script that does the opposite of what its real-life Liberian Mormon missionaries would do: it doesn’t take any chances. It’s a safe movie that preaches to the choir instead of stirring up its multi-cultural pot.
Set in Monrovia, where two warring tribes fight for supremacy while a group of missionaries tries to stay out of harm’s way on God’s errand, “Freetown” initially bristles with chaos and danger. Church member Abubakar (Henry Adofo) is charged with keeping the Elders safe, which means a dangerous trek through perilous, armed and guarded checkpoints on dusty backroads in the jungle while they hope to cross the border into the neighboring sanctuary of Sierra Leone.
Six of the missionaries pile into a ragged compact car and “Freetown” chronicles their journey as prayers are answered while obstacles appear around every corner. The actors, all native Liberians, are filled with lively personality that is rarely explored fully, and any emotional connection is limited since we have little backstory on their conversions and their families; in essence, the sacrifices they must have made to make such a significant commitment are unknown. And attempts at humor, which could have offered some contrast to the rather monotonous tone, are too few and far between. Some of the religious outpourings feel earnest if a little forced.
“Freetown” is by no means a bad movie; its unique story alone piques our interest, but it suffers from an identity crisis. Talented director Garrett Batty did a better job with his previous film, “The Saratov Approach,” by centering that film on the story’s dramatic tension and letting some doctrinal embellishments seep through, making a good kidnapping film that involved Mormon missionaries.
For similar comparisons, last year’s underappreciated Reese Witherspoon vehicle “The Good Lie,” about Sudanese civil war orphans who come to America told a more complete story by balancing its brutal backdrop with heartfelt humanity. “Freetown” has merit but could have delivered much more.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic situation involving violence.