God’s grace seems cruelly missing in “Free in Deed,” a quiet, unsettling story of faith found and tragically lost. Set in present-day Memphis, it focuses on two people who are just barely clinging to the margins. Abe (David Harewood) works as a janitor, pushing brooms and cleaning up other people’s waste; he spends much of the rest of his time in church. Melva (Edwina Findley Dickerson), a single mother, has a desk job but pours much of her energy into the care of her two children, particularly a son she can scarcely control and whose outbursts slip into frightening violence.
Abe and Melva meet through church. A tentative bond takes shape amid the humble pews and reverberant call and response, as the Pentecostal worshipers echo the resounding ministering. Soon, along with a few other congregants, Abe forms a prayer circle with the intention of healing Melva’s son, Benny (RaJay Chandler). Together, the congregants pray over Benny, who’s lain supine on the altar on a simple cloth. As he moans and sometimes thrashes, they praise and they plead, begging for help from above while pledging their love. They’re seeking a miracle for the child who increasingly looks like a sacrifice.
The writer-director Jake Mahaffy’s elliptical storytelling conveys meaning largely in visual and auditory bits, in shots of hands raised in prayer, in images of men and women isolated in the frame. The movie’s realism owes much to the lived-in locations and its two excellent leads, who fill in the gaps with nuanced emotional texture; the script doesn’t tell you much about who these people are, but the actors do. Such is the case with Mr. Harewood, whose rigorously restrained physical performance — a heavily bowed head, arms tightly crossed over his chest — conveys a desperate attempt at self-control and an unspoken burden that seems as if it should break a man.
Unlike Abe, Melva is still open to the world — her children, it’s suggested, are one reason…