Free In Deed

Free In Deed ★★★★½

I hadn't seen Jake Mahaffy's 'Free in Deed' since my first viewing back in 2016 at the Boston Independent Film Festival. It hit hard then, but it hit even harder on this second viewing. Much like his previous feature, 'Wellness' (one of my favorite films), 'Free in Deed' explores characters whose beliefs have been placed in something beyond themselves. Mahaffy charts how their realities are shaped by these influences and how they come to deal with consequences for their faithfulness. In 'Wellness,' a newly hired salesman working for a non-existent business (a pyramid scheme built around some vaguely defined health care system) has to basically invent his job on the fly while trying to sell an imaginary product. He throws himself whole-heartedly into his new job, even as he fails miserably at it and all signs seem to point to the unreality of his profession. 'Free in Deed' follows various members of a storefront church in Memphis. One of them is a man named Abe who is featured in sermons as a faith healer. During services, he works miracles. Outside the church, his life is in shambles. He barely makes a living and clearly has his share of demons. He prays to God begging for any kind of sign that he cares. But then Abe becomes involved with Melva, a young single mother, and her son who suffers from an undiagnosed illness. Abe begins leading after-hours healing sessions with the boy, while becoming closer to Melva, until a session goes horribly wrong.

Mahaffy’s treatment of the film is incredibly restrained. He has stated that he modeled 'Free in Deed' after the Blues, and he avoids overdramatizing this story that could have easily been sensationalized and made more melodramatic and comfortable for audiences to digest. There are no grandiose displays of ACTING in 'Free in Deed.' It is instead a film where faith and uncertainty clash within each and every blink and gesture made by its characters. 'Free in Deed' is about faith being followed to the limits of believability, but Mahaffy allows so much of the emotional turbulence of the film to be held in. He recognizes the defenses these characters have put up against the world in their everyday lives and the coldness that is continuously thrown at them. Their lives outside the church give them little reason to believe in such miracles, especially Melva, who has lost her job, receives no help from the health care system, and has no idea what to do for her son. In each other though, within their shared belief system, they have some form of grounding.

Mahaffy says he is interested in "subjective realism," as in he is not attempting to replicate some objective "reality" on screen, but rather explore how his characters create their own realities, which are often at odds with what's presented to them. His work shows incredible compassion for his troubled characters as they navigate these devastating imaginative and spiritual thresholds. 'Free in Deed' is brilliant and harrowing filmmaking. This film is currently streaming on Kanopy, and 'Wellness' is free to watch on Mahaffy's Vimeo page.

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