I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that, over the past two years, the United States’ immigration policies have taken quite a drastic turn. The famous words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”; seem somewhat out of date when considering the Trump administration’s constant belittling and demonising of those seeking a better life.
Back in 2016, and especially as a non-American, it was at first easy to assume that much of America supported his policies. But the day when the Trump administration made their first move; by banning all immigrants from seven certain countries, ended up being quite the revelation.
The utter uproar that followed in its wake was astounding. For a few days and weeks the world watched as thousands of people filled up airports in protest, and dozens of lawyers arrived to offer their services pro bono. Here was proof that Americans weren’t content to simply speak out against such inhumane policies, but they were willing to fight it.
Saint Judy, the newest film from director Sean Hanish, is but a microcosm of that same struggle. But the power it holds over its audience is just as grand.
Based on a true story, Judith Wood (Michelle Monaghan), a 30-something divorcee and lawyer, has decided to move to Los Angeles so that her young son, Alex (Gabriel Bateman), can spend more time with his father (Peter Krause).
As she starts employment with big-shot lawyer Ray Hernandez (Alfred Molina), she soon gets drawn into the case of Asefa Ashwari (Leem Lubany), a woman seeking asylum due to her persecution for educating girls in her native Afghanistan.
But soon it becomes clear that the U.S. asylum system does not take into account the particular struggles that women must face in countries with far more repressive regimes. With barely any money and her young son drifting away from her, Wood has to sacrifice everything; not just to gain justice for her client, but for millions of women all around the world.
Throughout Saint Judy we occasionally see an advert for legal services on a bus stop bench. Each time we get a glimpse, it has become more and more vandalised. Eventually the bench becomes so covered up that nothing of the original advert remains. Except for four words: “I’ll Never Give Up.”
That one phrase defines the protagonist of Saint Judy to a T. An unstoppable driving force whose belief in justice is unshaken in the face of both personal and professional obstacles. And the role is only made better by Monaghan’s striking performance throughout. Her character’s passion exuding through with nothing more than a firm tone and unbreakable spirit. It’s a credit to both her and the writer, Dmitry Portnoy, that neither felt the need to have the character lose her temper in order to illustrate the emotional turmoil.
Much of Monaghan’s screentime is shared with Lubany, who plays the Afghan immigrant at the centre of this tale. But it’s a far more difficult role, being that she stays silent in most of her scenes. Fortunately Lubany’s performance absolutely shines through, taking us on an intense emotional journey with (mostly) only facial expressions to rely upon.
The large majority of scenes end up being rather intimate (understandable considering it’s mostly a courtroom drama); so it’s pretty impressive how Hanish and cinematographer Richard Wong have used their limited surroundings. One scene, where we’re introduced to Alfre Woodard and Common’s characters, is almost laughable as we first see the ridiculous dimensions of the room. And yet the performances from all four actors and the support of the crew makes this one of the standout sequences of the picture.
While the movie makes clear overtures to the injustices that immigrants face under the Trump administration (as the film-makers most likely intended); it’s impossible to ignore the cosmic shift American society is currently undergoing concerning women and their fighting back against sexual violence. There is no way the filmmakers could have anticipated this, but the above mentioned scene involves some particularly heart-wrenching remarks from Woodard’s character. Remarks that almost perfectly reflect the words coming out of many a politician in the 2018 battle for the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are, however, moments of repetition that occasionally threaten to slow down the story as a whole. The constant reminder that Wood is different or odd compared to those lawyers around her is a tad overdone. Personally I didn’t think it was strange that there are lawyers that choose justice over money, but maybe that says more about my naivety than I’d like.
Regardless, Saint Judy is a symbol of hope released at a time when there are many who need such reassurances. But with that comfort there is also a timely reminder that, despite it being over 100 years since women gained the right to vote, the fight for true legal equality still continues.