"So if the son sets you free...
you will be free indeed." - John 8:38
When we surrender our lives to God, it is easy to believe that our lives will be good. When we trust God's Will for our lives, we trust that this means our hopes and dreams will come true. We will marry. We will have children. We will prosper. We live our lives faithfully and, intentionally or not, we imagine that this means the prayers of our hearts will be answered.
This is, of course, both true and untrue. There is no question that God's Will for our lives is that we will live our lives immersed in God's ever-present love. We believe this, but we still want the good life.
However, faith is hard. Faith is not insurance against the traumas and dramas of the world. Our faith is, however, assurance that God is always with us in every moment of every day and in every single moment of our lives.
Every single moment.
That's one of our greatest challenges as Christians - to live our lives faithfully even when the world that surrounds us would proclaim that faith doesn't make sense.
Inspired by the real life story of a Ukrainian woman who was abducted by Russian gangsters and sold into trafficking when her husband couldn't pay his gambling debts, Pursuit of Freedom is the latest film from Indiana-based filmmaker George A. Johnson. Pursuit of Freedom stars Jessica Koloian (Thy Neighbor) as Anna, whose husband's gambling has put the entire family in danger as the gangsters in question becoming increasingly impatient for their money and take to threatening Anna and those with whom she shares the family home including her parents, Anastasiya (Mimi Sagadin) and Sergei (Paul Kandarian), and children Armen (Brayden Eaton), Siran (Tenley Kellogg), and Hovan (Elias Kemuel).
As a Christian filmmaker, Johnson has long aspired to tell honest stories through the lens of faith. From the warm and fuzzy Homeless for the Holidays to the grittier, action-tinged Thy Neighbor, Johnson infuses his films with real people living real lives filled with traumas and dramas, heartbreak and uncertainty. With Johnson's last film, the award-winning Thy Neighbor, Johnson refused to compromise the grittiness and raw nature of his story even as he remained laser-focused on telling the story in a way that would resonate with his Christian audiences.
With Pursuit of Freedom, Johnson tells the kind of story seldom seen in faith-based cinema and he tells it in a way that is jarringly honest and devastating in moments as Koloian's Anna is taken away from her children and dropped into a world where faith is, quite simply, just about all she has left.
To call this a career-best performance for Koloian feels like an understatement. Mesmerizing as a pastor's wife in Johnson's Thy Neighbor, Koloian digs deep here and gives a brilliantly realized, uncompromising performance that hits all the right notes of honesty, vulnerability, perseverance, and gut-level determination. This is the kind of performance that should, if there's any justice in the world, have the faith-based cinematic world knocking on Koloian's door.
Yet, truthfully, there's not a weak performance here. It's as if the entire ensemble tapped into the mission within the pages of Johnson's multi-award winning script and practically across the board they give simply remarkable performances.
Enough good can't be said about Pursuit of Freedom's trio of young performers portraying Anna's children. Thrust into circumstances that no child should experience, these children radiate the real life traumas they've experienced but also the childhood spirits they still possess. Brayden Eaton is the eldest of the three, a young man and protector for his younger siblings and absolutely relentless in his dedication despite their seemingly hopeless circumstances. As the younger siblings, both Tenley Kellogg and Elias Kemuel had moments that left me simply in awe.
Mimi Sagadin is wonderful as Anastasiya, especially early in the film, and Paul Kandarian is nothing short of riveting.
While Johnson is uncompromising in portraying the devastation of trafficking, what makes Pursuit of Freedom such a remarkable effort is how Johnson still manages amidst it all to keep the film's cinematic lens on faith and perseverance. As Anna's story unfolds, it's as if the heavens open up and surround her with angels in skin who absolutely never let her go.
It's absolutely how the faith community should always be. We can never let each other go.
Sharonne Lanier, as a nurse named Naomi, brought me to tears several times with a performance that is simultaneously fierce and faithful, compassionate and absolutely resolute. So wonderful is Lanier's performance that I found myself rushing over to IMDB to check out the rest of her filmography.
Then, there are the more familiar names.
I've long reviewed the work of the wonderful Stelio Savante and I must say that Savante is absolutely stellar here as Bedros, a missionary who becomes an unrelenting advocate and protector for Anna's children. Robert Amaya, another wonderfully familiar face, gives a similarly energized performance that also offers a layer of warmth and humanity to the film. Kudos must also be given to Mark Lowry as Norm, Robia Scott as Anoush, and Mike Markoff as Razmig.
There are others, of course, as Johnson has put together a truly excellent ensemble.
Is it a spiritual gift for a Christian filmmaker to be good at casting bad guys?
D.P. James Burgess has the distinct challenge of lensing a film that needs to balance the horror of human trafficking with the difficult to understand but undeniable faith that radiates throughout Pursuit of Freedom. Burgess accomplishes wonders here, never flinching through the film's more challenging scenes but also never letting us forget these are human beings and children of God.
The same is true for Damon Criswell's emotionally resonant original score that serves as a perfect complement for the film's varying rhythms and emotional highs and lows.
As noted, Johnson's script for the film has already picked up multiple awards even as Pursuit of Freedom is getting set for its festival run and distribution through indie distributor Vision Films. It's so refreshing to have a Christian filmmaker absolutely committed to telling a story with honesty and integrity while also uncompromisingly shining the light of faith and perseverance through life's darkest moments. In the end, Johnson leaves no doubt and Koloian brings beautifully to life the simple truth that through our darkest and most hopeless times God never lets us go and is always, always, always with us.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic