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I am deeply aware that Michael Landon, Jr.—despite the best efforts of his detractors—has an avid and loyal following, thanks in large part to both his father’s legacy and the success of the Love Comes Softly franchise. I am also up on the fact that Beverly Lewis is a best-selling author, and that The Shunning is merely one of her monster titles.
I’ve seen Landon’s three prior films—The Velveteen Rabbit, Saving Sarah Cain (also based on a Lewis novel), and The Last Sineater—and frankly haven’t seen what the fuss is about, one way or the other. Landon is a competent director who makes genre films. That’s a good and honest way to make a living, and he does so with a modicum of artfulness that no doubt pleases him immensely. A filmmaker could do much, much worse than his oeuvre.
The Shunning is a decided cut above all that. The latest in Hallmark Channel’s made-for-TV efforts, The Shunning tells the story of a young Amish woman, Katie Lapp, who struggles to fit into her Hickory Hollow community. Since her childhood boyfriend was presumed drowned some years prior, the music has literally gone out of Katie’s life and she is betrothed to widower and single father John Beiler, also the community’s bishop. When a mysterious “English” woman stirs things up by leaving a message for Katie’s mother Rebecca, Katie ends up making some decisions that run her afoul of Amish propriety—and she is shunned.
The Amish setting is an entire genre unto itself, it seems—at least, if the paperback sections at my local supermarkets and drug stores are any indicator—and a common thread in such stories is: free yourself from the chains that bind you. (This is only natural, I suppose. I wonder if there are “English” novels on Amish market shelves, and what the primary theme might be… Free yourself from the supposed freedom that binds you?) The Shunning is, on the surface, not much different in that regard. Given Katie’s natural gifts and interests, we can hardly hope for her to find a compromise with the values of her elders—and remain in Hickory Hollow.
At the same time—and, frankly, this is where Landon’s eighth feature film sets itself apart from his earlier efforts—the beauty with which Landon’s camera captures Hickory Hollow and its people is so loving as to be a very, very weak indictment of Amish faith and values. Sure, Katie may look hip tripping down a city street in designer-store clothes to a pop-rock soundtrack—but does anyone actually think that the city is a more attractive place to live? Landon’s film, at the very least, doesn’t seem to find much beauty there, in spite of the film’s earnest and under-earned denouement.
I’ll go out on a limb here and postulate that the team assembled by the film’s producers yielded a unique chemistry—which in turn sparked a compelling and remarkable film. I wouldn’t say it moved me—but it held me. And you know I’m not exactly the film’s target demographic.
Danielle Panabaker is outstanding as Katie, while Sandra W. Van Natta and Bill Oberst, Jr. as her parents Rebecca and Samuel, are first-rate. Even though Rebecca’s role is written in a particularly one-note fashion, Van Natta’s portrayal makes you think, “Well, yeah—that’s pretty much the kind of woman that environment would produce!”
I also applaud the restraint of the film in letting certain hypocrisies in the story just slide. Yes, we could point out that Katie isn’t the only one in this story worthy of shunning—but then that’s a finger that points in many different directions, yes?
I think if you pick up The Shunning in its home video incarnation, you’ll probably be absolutely thrilled with it. If you’re looking for something more like Ice Truckers or Sons of Anarchy… well, this is a film about Amish women, you ninny.
The Shunning is unrated. Just because of the whole rebellion angle, and some spoilerish plot-related themes, you might consider it PG.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of The Shunning.