Raw Faith is a genuflecting vehicle about a flawed female preacher who's gutsy enough to let cameras pry into her life beyond the pulpit. Even stripped of church robes and ornamentation, this doc about Unitarian Minister Marilyn Sewell reveals many internal conflicts. Yes, Minister Sewell is a flawed human being working through a troubled past, but the filmmakers (who are also parishioners) try too hard to disarm their spiritual leader, amplifying her imperfections. Almost two decades into her church tenure this divorcee is pining for retirement and a little slice of happiness for herself beyond the cloth. The religious faithful who show up for Sunday morning sermons will welcome this offering, but general auds are going to skip this communion.
Short, graying hair surrounds Marilyn Sewell's face and welling eyes: quickly we see she's brooding. The Southern transplant is an academic and a holy disciple at a crossroads. Alone since she abandoned her family for the priesthood, she now wants to reclaim the lost time. Yet Sewell's sons are grown-up with families of their own, while she's stuck on an endless moving platform, her grip on her principles and her faith slipping. She seeks answers from a circle including a therapist and a spiritual advisor—her workaholic lifestyle seems to soothe the strain as well. She has her own interests in mind; by agreeing to make this film she's forcing herself to turn a page in her stagnant life.
Despite popularity with her 1,600-member congregation, the minister is having a hard time finding her own solitude and considers quitting the church. The selfless Sewell is committed to her people. "I wanna be all used up." But she's tapped out and longs for a companion. And the church isn't cutting it.
Keeping up with the religious woman as she cries her heart out on her video journals is interesting. We see her try to pen a book and figure out what's not working in her life at therapy sessions. More comfortable with the cameras, she begins to share how hard her childhood was. Her dad skipped out one night and left their mentally ill mother to fend for herself. When Sewell had her own family, she left them for the priesthood. Now that she's awakened to change she hopes her sons will accept their mother back.
The film is a first offering from executive producers Scott and Ashley MacEachern who enlisted Wm. Peter Wiedensmith to direct. Overall it's clean and incorporates some beauty shots between the dramatics, but content is too often overdrawn. While not insincere, the push to be "real," or "raw" as advertised by the film's title, is counter to Sewell's formal nature. In another character portrait, these moments could play as brave spontaneity, but in Raw Faith they leave the rest of the film with an oily residue. Sewell is left to carry the film, which means she's tearing out her heart on camera—until the meat turns to dried jerky. Even as she returns to her hometown to wrestle with childhood demons or obsesses over why finding love again is fruitless, the resolution is as overly sympathetic as firing a flower out of a canon.
The twists and zig-zags Sewell makes aren't enough either, because the doc is pulling for some lucky straws and banking they'll suffice. They don't. Some charging and optimistic sermons are paralleled with Sewell's own pessimism and tribulations, and the juxtaposition is the most compelling in the film—however the sermons are glossed over and downplaying them steals thunder from the drama. Ultimately, we don't probe deeply enough into the shortcomings of doing God's Work. Can her sermons to be taken as gospel if the messenger is a disbeliever? Therein lies the rub.
Distributor: Alive Mind Cinema
Director: Wm. Peter Wiedensmith
Producers: Neil Kopp
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: June 24 ltd.