Saint Judy (United States, 2019)

March 01, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Saint Judy Poster

Despite the faint whiff of sanctimoniousness that occasionally emanates from this well-meaning motion picture, Saint Judy generally holds its own as a solid courtroom drama. Blessed with interesting characters and using a real-life case as the basis for its narrative, the movie treads into John Grisham territory while leaving behind the cartoonish, over-the-top theatrics that characterize Grisham’s potboilers. Saint Judy has a serious agenda and, in service of that, it eschews action scenes, thriller elements, and conventional contrivances. It tells a worthwhile story and provides a primer on aspects of immigration law without becoming didactic.

The timing of the movie’s release will be seen as political but the story comes from the 1980s (although it has been time-shifted to the modern day). The most negative statement about U.S. immigration policy is made by a prosecutor who remarks that the agency he started working for was called “Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS)” but now it’s “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).” (This change happened in 2003 as a direct reaction to 9/11.)

The movie’s title character is Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), a lawyer who moves to Los Angeles with her son so he can spend time with his father (and her ex-husband), who has relocated there. She finds employment in an immigration “clearinghouse” run by Ray Hernandez (Alfred Molina), a disillusioned do-gooder whose goal is to get as many cases as possible rubber-stamped and out the door. It’s all about volume. Clearing paperwork equates to making money but Judy doesn’t accept this philosophy. Her first case is that of an Afghani woman, Asefa (Leem Lubandy), who is seeking asylum in the United States on the grounds that she was persecuted by the Taliban and, if she was to return, she would be killed. When Judy’s investigations anger the wrong people, Ray is forced to fire her. She takes the case with her and opens her own practice. She represents Asefa in front of a sympathetic judge (Alfre Woodard) while being opposed by a fair-minded prosecutor (Common). It’s then that she learns some hard truths about the intricacies of post-9/11 immigration policy.

Although the underlying story is one of the triumphant underdog, the movie doesn’t resort to “rah rah” manipulation. There’s an honesty about the characters and their circumstances. No one, not even “Saint Judy,” is shown to be without sin. Her chief flaw, as pointed out by her husband, is that she cares more deeply for the people she represents than her own son, who often feels neglected (and goes to live with his father as a consequence). Ray, despite appearing heartless in some early scenes, is a good man who has been beaten down by the realities of a system that’s stacked against the people he represents. Saint Judy’s villains are the faceless laws not the people who uphold them. The movie gives ICE a sympathetic visage.

Like On the Basis of Sex, Saint Judy chronicles precedent-setting court action set in motion by the stubbornness of an activist lawyer who wouldn’t be cowed by an intransigent and uncaring system. Although there was a wide gulf between the real-world activities of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Judy Wood, the movies craft a kinship in the ways the stories are fashioned and presented. Saint Judy is inspirational without being cloying. It taught me a few things, reminded me of a few others, and makes a strong case that there are times when basic human compassion should inform – not contradict – the letter of the law.

Saint Judy (United States, 2019)

Director: Sean Hanish
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubandy, Common, Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Mykelti Williamson
Screenplay: Dmitry Portnoy
Cinematography: James T. Sale
Music: Richard Wong
U.S. Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2019-03-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Adult Themes)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1