This timely and unexpectedly good-hearted biopic tells the story of Judy Wood (the always reliable Michelle Monaghan), an attorney who moved to California with her young son Alex (Gabriel Bateman), took on immigration law in a post-9/11 world where most immigrants were treated like criminals, and in the process got changes made in long-standing laws concerning certain female immigrants seeking asylum in America.
It’s fairly clear that when Wood started working for a firm led by Ray Hernandez (Alfred Molina), she didn’t set out to be a crusader, but when it became clear that the firm was more about getting paid than helping the seemingly helpless, she decided to actually care about the clients whose names were on the files piling up on her desk. The case that turned out to be the game-changer involved a Muslim woman named Asefa (Leem Lubany), a teacher who was thrown into prison by the Taliban for opening up a school for girls and walking the streets with her students without a male escort. After being brutalized in prison, she fled to the U.S., seeking asylum with little chance of that happening since women as a group aren’t considered a political or persecuted group (in the eyes of the law).
After taking on Asefa’s case and learning the immigration court’s procedures (including the one that puts the burden of proof for asylum on the immigrant), Wood finally does get her case heard by a judge (Alfre Woodard). But even with a sympathetic opposing counsel (Common), the case appears beyond winning. Director Sean Hanish (Return to Zero), working from a screenplay by Dmitry Portnoy, isn’t afraid to let Saint Judy get heavy with legal language and procedure. The purpose of the film is to make audiences understand why the system seems designed to discourage anyone from attempting to fight it. The film’s least interesting moments come when it strays from the law to peer into Wood’s personal life—with a son who is convinced that his mother cares more about her clients than him, and an ex-husband (Peter Krause) ready to swoop in and take advantage of the rift between mother and son.
Playing out like the immigration law version of Erin Brockovich, Saint Judy at times feels like a condensed version of real events, and the writing is sometimes simplified to make it digestible. But the caliber of the performances elevates the material to such a degree that the film is made compelling, and the struggle of both attorney and client is equal parts gripping and frustrating. Monaghan is so frequently terrific in supporting roles that we forget how engaging and focused she is when moved into a lead performance. She’s one of the best actors working today, and while Saint Judy is getting a very limited release this week, it’s worth seeking out just to be in her presence.
The film opens in Chicago exclusively at the AMC River East 21.
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