Judge Clark Douglas still has a sore shunbone from yesterday's church softball game.
A woman shunned!
"Why didn't you tell me the truth?"
Facts of the Case
Katie Lapp (Danielle Panabaker, Mr. Brooks) is a young woman living in a typical Amish community in Pennsylvania. While she has occasionally questioned the more conservative practices of her community from time to time, she has generally been described by those who know her as a, "good Amish woman." She is currently engaged to be married to a middle-aged widower, which is something she seems less than excited about. One day, an outsider named Laura Mayfield-Bennett (Sherry Stringfield, E.R.) comes around asking questions and raising suspicions. Soon, Katie discovers a variety of secrets about her past and finds herself forced to confront many of her long-held beliefs.
The Shunning is based on a novel by the prolific Christian fiction writer Beverly Lewis, who often focuses on the culture and practices of the Amish in her books. Her writing style has often been compared to the works of fellow Christian writer Janette Oke, whose films were previously adapted for television by The Shunning helmer Michael Landon, Jr. Given the track records and personal beliefs of the folks behind this story and production, I sincerely doubt the intent was to depict the Amish community as a group of unbelievably small-minded, petty idiots, but that's precisely what The Shunning does.
Considering the film's title, it's not much of a spoiler to tell you that Katie Lapp is eventually shunned from her community. Shunning is indeed a real-life practice that is used in numerous parts of the world (though most prominently in the Amish community), and it remains rather controversial to this day. The practice essentially translates into an entire community pretending that a single troublesome person does not exist—they don't talk to the person, don't look at them and won't acknowledge them in any way. The shunning can only end when the person being shunned goes before the church congregation and repents before everyone. It's an extremely harsh measure to begin with, but made more alarming in The Shunning by the manner in which it is employed.
What sin does Katie commit that causes her community to shun her? She gets cold feet at the altar (which is certainly a good thing, as she was headed into what was sure to be a terrible marriage) and has a couple of arguments with her parents after finding out that they covered up the truth about her past. Oh, the horror! Watching the manner in which poor Katie was treated by those around her filled me with anger, but the film treats the shunning as nothing more than a well-intentioned tough love practice that is just part of life in that particular world. Nothing I've read suggests that someone would actually be shunned for such frivolous reasons, but this film's supposedly warm version of the Amish makes them look like heartless monsters.
Still, The Shunning is reasonably effective as a portrait of a young woman attempting to discover the truth about herself, even if that truth is exasperatingly treated as a big secret until the final act despite the fact that we've all figured it out long before then. Panabaker's sturdy performance as Katie goes a long way towards making the film engaging, and the supporting cast is credible enough despite some wobbly accents. The film's production design is handsome considering its budget, and offers an interesting look at life on the prairie.
Despite the fact that the "who is Katie?" plot takes up the bulk of the running time, the shunning material is what really forms the meat of the film. It's interesting stuff, but it's also exasperatingly difficult to figure out where the film stands on the matter. It seems as if Landon is attempting to take an passively objective approach to the practice, but this is not a subject that requires objectivity. It seems plain enough to me that the kind of shunning demonstrated in the film is absolutely wrong and cruel, but Landon frustratingly refuses to acknowledge the notion that the people involved in the shunning are anything more than just good folks who happen to be a little bit more conservative than the rest of us. This subject is too volatile to be treated as nothing more than a side item that drives a soapy plot.
Additionally, the film ends on an inconclusive note that suggests some sequels are on the way (understandable, given that the The Shunning is based on the first book in a series of three). However, the ending drops the viewer at an awkward point and provides very little catharsis, making this a picture that will prove an unsatisfying stand-alone installment if the sequels aren't actually produced.
The DVD transfer is sturdy, offering strong detail throughout. A handful of flashback scenes are soaked in soft, golden-hued shots, which is more than a little corny. Otherwise, the naturalistic color palette is appealing and blacks are quite deep. Flesh tones are warm and natural. The audio is sturdy, with clean dialogue and a lush score by Lee Holdridge (a disappointingly generic effort from a talented guy) dominating the mix. The only supplement is a handful of deleted scenes.
The Shunning is a stronger-than-average piece of Christian filmmaking on a technical level, but the troubling manner in which it deals with its subject matter (not to mention its frustrating ending) makes it difficult to recommend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Believe Pictures
• Deleted Scenes
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