A ferocious summer storm strikes the East Texas town of Bethlehem, leaving an image of Jesus on the screen door of the modest home of a feisty, middle-aged African American woman. This sequence is staged with dramatic force and economy by first-time feature filmmaker Kirk Davis and suggests accurately that what will follow in "Screen Door Jesus" is not going to be just another trite small-town comedy-drama -- and indeed it turns out to be a slyly observed slice of Americana.
In adapting Christopher Cook's collection of short stories, inspired by actual incidents, and drawing on his own experiences as a boy preacher -- subsequently "disfellowshipped" -- native Tennessean Davis brings an entire community alive to make the distinction between Christian spirituality with its message of compassion and the dogmatic interpretations of religious fundamentalists.
A lot is going on in Bethlehem, and the image of Jesus on the screen door of Mother Harper (Cynthia Dorn) simply sets in motion a series of interconnected stories. Early on, before her home threatens to turn into another Lourdes, she significantly turns around the familiar slogan "Seeing is believing" to "Believing is seeing." The image of Jesus on her screen door may be a little too literal for Davis' take-it-or-leave-it point of view, but it does introduce the possibility of a higher power working in mysterious ways.
A key storyline involves an uptight bank president (Cliff Stephens) who perversely takes a Sunday sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan as justification to deny a devout African American man's (C. Anthony Jackson) request for a loan to repair his truck -- an act of selfishness that will have drastic consequences for both. Meanwhile, an ex-con musician and security guard (Mark Dalton), the son of a physically abusive Pentecostal preacher, has developed a decidedly freethinking understanding of the Bible's teachings. He is having an affair with the sexy secretary-mistress (Scarlett McAllister) of the mayor (Richard Dillard) -- and is trying to reason with his conservative fellow security guard (Josh Berry), who is not happy about standing guard at a conference convened to consider a more open attitude toward abortion and gays.
As Bethlehem's own shrillest fundamentalists (Anjanette Comer, leading lady of "The Loved One" and other '60s pics, and Franchelle S. Dorn) rain constant misery on their families, the town's widowed young sheriff (Myk Watford) embarks on a frustrated romance with a pious beauty (Alaina Kalanj).
Davis manages to maintain a detached sense of humor and a jaunty pace toward increasingly complex events and individuals, and although his skills are not fully developed, "Screen Door Jesus" is a notable and engaging example of independent regional filmmaking.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. Exclusively at the Beverly Center 13, Beverly and La Cienega boulevards, (310) 652-7760.