PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 23: Actor Anna Camp attends the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “A Little Prayer” Premiere at The Ray Theatre on January 23, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
By Aliese Muhonen
Dealing with misbehaving kids is tough for any parent. But what’s a dad to do when they’re still pulling shenanigans as adults? And tougher still, what if he’s partly to blame?
Increasingly concerned by his son’s extramarital affair and daughter’s erratic lifestyle, Southern business owner and family patriarch Bill decides to intervene. The hilarity and heartbreak of his Southern family and well-intentioned meddling form the center of A Little Prayer, a drama that premiered January 23 at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Returning to Sundance for the first time since his much-acclaimed screenplay Junebug (2005), writer-director Angus MacLachlan again drew inspiration from his backyard. A born and raised North Carolinian, he told the audience at the post-premiere Q&A that he wanted to see more authentic depictions of the South.
“I take a little bit of exception to the way Southerners are often portrayed in a cliched way,” MacLachlan says. “I also think that [in the] history of film — from James Cagney to Succession — they’re set in New York but we don’t think of them as regional films; they’re just accepted as stories. So I don’t really think [about] what I do as regional, it just happens to be here [in North Carolina]. And it could be, hopefully, the old trope that, if you are very specific, it becomes universal.”
Not only is A Little Prayer set and filmed in his hometown of Winston-Salem, but MacLachlan realized later that his journey as a parent provided additional fuel for the project.
“I started it when my daughter was 16, and she’s now 21,” he said in a video interview. “The film is really about parenting adult children and how you still want to protect them and tell them what to do, and you can’t.”
Bill can certainly relate. Played with empathy by David Strathairn, Bill struggles to confront his son’s philandering while he tries to protect his seemingly naive daughter-in-law, Tammy (Jane Levy). Meanwhile, a visit from his comically dysfunctional daughter, Patty (Anna Camp), throws the whole house off-kilter.
A commentary on life in Southern towns, the film subtly examines the cyclical nature of problems in families — from the lingering challenges veterans face, to the influences of patriarchy, ingrained gender roles, and societal expectations.
“I always want to portray stories where every character has something going on. That’s interesting to me, and that’s the way family is — you don’t know the secrets about everybody, you don’t really know what’s going on,” MacLachlan says at the Q&A. “In this Southern family there’s a certain kind of propriety about not going too far into a people’s business, and they’re also a military family, so they know [the] protocol.”
One audience member asks MacLachlan whether it was difficult to depict the film’s strong women characters and vulnerable male characters, as well as controversial topics like PTSD and reproductive rights.
“It’s an interesting question now about what you have the right to tell. I’m an actor and consider myself an artist,” he responds, “and I think the point of art is to make us understand something beyond what our lived history is. So I feel as strongly [that] the women characters, I can relate to as much as the men characters. It was interesting to see these two strong men [that] are really struggling.”
As Bill and his wife Venida (Celia Weston) find, there’s a fine and murky line between helping children and enabling their damaging behavioral patterns.
Sometimes, all you can do is say a little prayer.