Saint Judy is a legal drama based on a true story about Judy L. Wood, an immigration attorney who gives her all to defend Asefa Ashwari, an Afghan schoolteacher seeking asylum.
The film stars Michelle Monaghan who is supported by Leem Lubany, Common and Alfred Molina. Monaghan moves with grace, in a textured role that allows her to truly shine, ordinarily cast in supporting roles best known for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Source Code and Gone Baby Gone. Imbuing some similarities to Cate Blanchett, she’s more down to earth and relatable, not having to flaunt her sexuality and probably identifying with Judy Wood through her own perseverance in Hollywood. Lubany’s central performance as Ashwari is measured by intensity and micro-expressions, Common seems to improve with each performance, while actor and producer, Alfred Molina, has a key supporting role as Judy’s new boss.
Moving from a successful career in another city, she finds herself out of her depth, living in a cheap apartment in LA with her son, grappling with a boss who just wants her to rubber stamp documents and taking up her personal conviction to be a defender of the people. Now in Trump America, where threats of walls are coming to realisation and immigration practice is becoming a much crueller world to work in, Saint Judy is a timely, humanistic and relevant drama. A nation of immigrants, the irony runs deep as this message movie focusses on gender inequality across the globe and a much more clinical approach to immigration gatekeeping in the United States.
“Detention is too Breakfast Club… this is prison.”
Saint Judy operates in a familiar space, supplanting the character in a new environment, confronted with challenges, continually sticking it to the man moving from small to big fish without backing down. Defending each case as if she was somehow related to the plaintiff, she becomes personally invested, sacrificing personal relationships around her. Divorced, a single parent, trying to start her own legal practice and centring on one critical case that became a turning point in American history, her slogan of “never give up” becomes the mission of this drama.
Taking the film out of the traditional courtroom setting and moving across to the much more intimate, boxy and steady environment of a detention camp, there’s something fresh about this legal drama. Leaning on complex characters and sidestepping typical cliches, you can forgive the odd touch of melodrama. While the cast ensures it has dramatic heft and the screenplay’s powerful message slowly unveils, it does hold commercial quality making it more accessible to mainstream audiences. Staying on track, continually showing heart with a spirited lead performance from Monaghan, it’s ably supported by her co-stars whose sincerity is evident and adds to the heartfelt emotional undercurrent.
It’s a touching and powerful true story, which offers a glimpse of what On the Basis of Sex could have been. While angelic, it demonstrates how Saint Judy wasn’t quite a saint in her personal circumstances, putting career ahead of family, yet the drama doesn’t diverge into the murkier waters of a film like Miss Sloane. While the message is important, Saint Judy is ultimately a crowd-pleasing and uplifting film, which steers clear of blood and grit, offering an ellipsis where it could have become overly graphic.
Solid performances from a committed ensemble, a powerful true story, a lightweight investigation into detention centre politics and refreshing, yet familiar courtroom drama storytelling make for a compelling and heartfelt film with the best of intentions. While Saint Judy doesn’t quite go deep enough into the character’s journey, it boldly shines a light on ancient Afghan customs, injustices in immigration cases and remains an entertaining and engaging film. It could have been much more powerful, yet remains a satisfying film showing that give-it-all persistence, perseverance and passion can overcome the seemingly impossible.
The bottom line: Engaging