The Spool / Movies
Sundance 2023: A Little Prayer & L’Immensita
A pair of films about family explore the ties that bind and tear apart.
Read also: the best live TV streaming services with free trial>

A pair of films about family, A Little Prayer & L’Immensita, explore the ties that bind and tear apart.

Angus MacLachlan’s A Little Prayer stars David Straithairn as Bill, the head of a family-owned sheet-metal business. He lives in a quiet Winston-Salem suburb with his wife, Venida (Celia Weston). His son/co-worker David (Will Pullen) and daughter-in-law Tammy (Jane Levy) also reside in the guest house on the property. The family is clearly close-knit. Bill even shares a particularly strong bond with his daughter-in-law.

When Bill begins to suspect David is having an affair with the office secretary (Dascha Polanco), he is aghast, seemingly mostly on Tammy’s behalf. He does what he can to try to get David to break things off, but things turn out to be more complicated than initially believed. As Bill tries to make things right, he must come to terms with his relationship to both David and Tammy. 

A Little Prayer (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

Further complicating things is the arrival of Patti (Anna Camp), Bill and Venida’s troubled other child. She turns up unexpectedly with her own young daughter following yet another fight with her husband. While happy to sponge off her family, Patti also harbors resentments. She believes, not without foundation, that her parents, especially Bill, prefer Tammy.  

The film shares a considerable amount of DNA with McLachlan’s best-known previous credit as screenwriter on the Sundance favorite Junebug. Their similar Southern settings give rise to low-key narratives about the complications that family ties can inspire. Unfortunately, the results are a bit uneven in the early going with A Little Prayer. This is especially the case with the arrival of the wayward daughter. She ends up serving more as a counterpoint to Tammy than a believable character in her own right. 

Scenes begin to pack a solid emotional punch without slipping into pure melodrama.

However, once A Little Prayer settles down, it becomes more convincing. Scenes begin to pack a solid emotional punch without slipping into pure melodrama. A lot of credit for this goes to the effective performances from the entire cast, especially Straithairn and Levy. The two wonderful actors create an on-screen relationship that absolutely convinces before culminating in a genuinely extraordinary final scene. 

A Little Prayer admittedly looks and feels as if designed in some kind of cinema laboratory specifically to premiere at Sundance. Nonetheless, to the film’s considerable credit, it still proves well worth watching. 

L’Immensita, the first film in 11 years from Italian director Emanuele Crialese, is a simple and heartfelt drama—one evidently inspired in part by his own childhood. However, its simplicity is thrown off balance, paradoxically, by the very element that it hopes will lure audiences, the presence of Penelope Cruz. Set in the 1970s, the film’s primary focus is on 12-year-old Andrea (Luana Giuliani). He’s a transgender boy, much to the consternation of his younger siblings and most of his extended family. 

L'Immensità (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

The only one who comes closest to accepting him as he wishes is his mother, Clara (Cruz), but she has limits. Mostly convinced Andri is going through a phase, she tries to shield him from the larger world. For instance, when she learns he is sneaking off to a nearby run-down Roma campsite to see Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti), she orders him to stop. She’s certain she knows how others will react to him if they knew everything. Complicating things further, Clara has her own struggles. Chief among them is her husband, Felice (Vincenzo Amato). He’s a brute whose compulsive cheating and abusive behavior are driving her steadily toward madness.  

There is much to recommend about L’Immensita. It tells Andri’s story sensitively and intelligently, understanding how even more fraught his life would’ve been in this early era. It benefits further from a quietly dynamic performance from newcomer Giuliani. Even the full-scale musical numbers that crop up like choreographed fever dreams from time to time are not nearly as overly precious as they might have been in other hands. 

L’Immensita, the first film in 11 years from Italian director Emanuele Crialese, is a simple and heartfelt drama.

However, almost every time Cruz comes on the screen, she serves as a distraction. Her work here is quite good on its own terms. Unfortunately, her star presence is so undeniable, especially since she is the only big-name star in the cast. She comes across as too formidable to be a woman gradually beaten down by the cruelties of her husband. This becomes more glaring the moments her subplot threatens to overwhelm Andrea’s narrative.  

Nonetheless, L’Immensita remains worth watching, mostly for Giuliani’s work. Still, I can’t help thinking it might have been more convincing if a less-famous actress played Clara.