I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up my e-mail to see the latest film from Reflective Life Ministries, a ministry founded in 2008 by Carla McDougal, a Texas-based author/speaker/film producer with a relentless devotion to telling personal and meaningful stories that share the truth and message of Jesus Christ.
The first film that I reviewed for Reflective Life, First Love, was an involving and nicely produced effort that served as a contemporary retelling of the life of Peter.
With We Are Stronger, Reflective Life takes its mission to share the truth and message of Jesus Christ and sets it squarely into the life of Master Sergeant Victor Raphael (Ulises Larramendi), a soldier nearing the end of his military career when an explosion in Afghanistan changes his life forever. Returning home, Victor is thrust back into battle yet it's a battle for which he has no training and seemingly no ability to fight back. With his career now behind him, Victor finds himself in constant battle with his body and his mind as even his wife, Michelle (Angela Sweet), is seemingly present more out of a sense of duty than a sense of actual commitment to their marriage that was once divided by oceans and is now divided by something even more powerful.
We Are Stronger was the recipient of four Christian Media Association Awards and has a comfortable place within the world of Reflective Life. The non-profit organization is collaborating with Mighty Oaks Warriors, the Amos House of Faith and many other organizations working to raise awareness of PTSD and the hope Christ offers for healing.
As was true with First Love, there's no question, quite intentionally, that We Are Stronger is a faith-based film. As such, a good majority of secular critics would immediately dismiss the film and struggle to get past both its indie roots and faith-based story threads and dialogue.
While I am comfortable saying that We Are Stronger isn't quite up to the quality of First Love, it's also a more ambitious and broader project and Reflective Life continues to grow into its artistic vision and how best to express that vision.
The first, and a significant issue, with We Are Stronger was simply presentation. As a film journalist, the vision is to always see a film in the best setting possible. Of course, as a critic who often refers non-theatrically released indie projects this is often outside of a theatrical setting. Given the tremendous advancement in home audio/video technologies, this isn't a particularly bad thing and my own set-up is quite pleasing. However, the grand vision is to also the best possible version of a film. In The Independent Critic's submission guidelines, I intentionally advise against submitting films with visible watermarks or tagging because these things do, quite honestly, impact the viewing experience.
We Are Stronger was presented for review with its running timer still intact and visible on the screen throughout the film's just over two-hour running time. While there's no question that low-budget filmmaking often results in more than a few tech concerns, such a presentation is a particularly egregious error that negatively impacts the viewing experience for even the most skilled critic. In a film with such serious subject matter as We Are Stronger, it was even more jarring as scenes intended as serious and poignant were muted in impact by this disruptive visual.
This is not to say there's nothing to recommend about We Are Stronger - in fact, quite the opposite is true.
We Are Stronger is, indeed, a stronger film once we get on the road to healing. War, which comprises only a small portion of the film, is a difficult subject matter to pull off in any indie project and this is even more true within the framework of a faith-based production. The recent Flags of our Fathers, which had studio backing, was a tremendous example of a film with a similarly ambitious goal that fell remarkably short of that goal.
While We Are Stronger has its share of issues, particularly an inconsistent audio package and multiple scenes that linger far past their point of effectiveness, the film also benefits from its largely effective ensemble cast and, maybe even moreso, a commitment to honesty within the journey that turns We Are Stronger into that rare faith-based film that is also PG-13 rated. Kudos must be given to writer/director Robin B. Murray for instilling the film with elements of authenticity, a wife struggling with loneliness who is tempted by unexpected attention for example, and a willingness to not paint the characters in broad strokes of good and bad. While Victor's physical concerns are never clearly explained and their resolution a tad too neat and tidy to convince this paraplegic, the film still does a nice job of reinforcing that healing is a journey and avoiding the saccharine approach of miraculous, overnight resolution of every obstacle in Victor's life.
Ulises Larramendi is most convincing as a man moving toward healing, though he uses his entire facial expression wisely in portraying a man whose wounds go far deeper than the surface. Angela Sweet gives a courageous performance that allows her character's flaws to be seen vividly, perhaps so much so that much of the film Victor remains the sympathetic character even as he struggles for a good majority of the film with the physical and emotional healing journey. Among the supporting players, extra kudos must be given to the tremendous Justina Page as Aunt Hazel and young Rachel Francis as Mia.
There's little denying that We Are Stronger has its issues, especially in the area of production, but it's a meaningful, involving film with a mission that makes it worth the journey. For more information on the film and on that mission, visit the film's website linked to in the credits on the left.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic