The dramatic opening of Unconditional intercuts three perilous scenarios during a late night rainstorm. A woman suffering from depression sits in her car alone, preparing to shove a pistol into her mouth. An inner-city boy is shoplifting at a nearby store with his younger sister. And a man at home trembles as he scrambles to pump himself full of drugs.
But things are not quite as they appear. These ostensibly unconnected lives intersect much like 2006's Best Picture Winner Crash. And this is actually a Christian film—a surprisingly good one, for that matter.
The woman, Samantha, is an up-and-coming children's book author played by Lynn Collins (John Carter, X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The film's effective prologue makes clever use of animation to explain how her husband Billy was killed in a street shooting, giving us the basics without showing the violence per se. In the months since, the grieving Sam has lost her faith and the will to live.
Preparing to kill herself, Sam hears screams down the street. A young girl, Keisha, has been hit by a car after chasing her older brother Macon into the street while fleeing the store he just robbed. Macon pleads for Sam to help, and she takes them to a nearby hospital.
Keisha ends up just fine, and the hospital calls one of the kids' contacts, and it's Joe (Barbershop's Michael Ealy), the man we saw supposedly shooting up in the first scene—when he was, in fact, working with a dialysis machine to treat a severe kidney disease. In the midst of his anguish, he prays for the safety of the kids, who are part of his inner-city youth group. It also turns out that Joe and Sam were close childhood friends, reconnecting through happenstance at the hospital.
These characters become more fleshed out as the story progresses. Joe lost a promising career due to pride and a prison sentence, lamenting what might have been if it weren't for past mistakes and his kidney disease. Macon is a problem child destined for trouble due to a lack of strong parenting. Traumatized at an early age, Keisha hasn't spoken in years and communicates only by notepad. It's obvious what Sam struggles with, but as she gets to better know Joe and the kids he works with, she soon discovers that Macon and Keisha live next door to a man who may be connected to her husband's murder.
Those are some of the general details revealed in Unconditional, and an astute filmgoer could probably guess how these tensions resolve. But then there are other scenes that may catch viewers off guard, maybe even wring some tears from cynical hearts.
What separates Unconditional from other Christian films is less a matter of what is in the story than how it is told. Having talented filmmakers and professional actors makes a huge difference in a movie like this. The actors pull off their performances with authenticity, especially Collins and Ealy, but even the inexperienced kids come across as cute and precocious without seeming overly clichéd.
Writer/director Brent McCorkle frames his shots well, making beautiful use of shadows and light in the city of Nashville, especially during that opening rainstorm. Inspired by true events (it's based on Joe Bradford, who runs a real-life ministry to children in Nashville), the story effectively relies on flashbacks—Sam and Joe as children, Sam with her husband, Joe in prison—without ever muddling the storytelling; each scene establishes itself well. There's even some well-staged action as shown in a brief prison fight.