'Amish Grace' poor retelling of Lancaster County tragedy


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"Amish Grace," the story of the 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, begins with a disclaimer that acknowledges the cable movie is based on a true story but "certain events and characters have been fictionalized, including the Graber family," the primary focus of the film.

No wonder the authors of the book the movie is based upon, "Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy," are distancing themselves from this Lifetime Movie Network film. They released a statement saying they were not involved in the film, declined producers' request to consult on the movie and would donate their share from the sale of film rights to a nonprofit organization.

"Other than knowing that the upcoming movie mixes fictional characters with factual events, we know nothing about its content," wrote authors Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher in a statement. "We are therefore unable to comment on its merits. We do know that Amish people are skeptical of movies and books about Amish life that blur fact and fiction, and particularly a movie that addresses such a painful subject. For that reason and others, we decided not to assist the filmmakers in the course of the movie's production."

"Amish Grace," airing at 8 p.m. Sunday on LMN, traffics in every terrible TV movie cliche.

It begins six months after the shootings as a replacement school opens and then flashes back to before the shooting in Nickel Mines, introducing viewers to the Graber family, including mother Ida (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, "According to Jim") and father Gideon (Matt Letscher, "Eli Stone"). They have two daughters, including one who yearns to be a teacher and appears to have a bright future, which effectively telegraphs the tragedy that will befall the character.

This is the primary problem with "Amish Grace": It uses a sledgehammer, shunning nuance the way the Amish avoid using electricity.

The film handles the shooting sensitively -- it's not shown and viewers don't even hear gunshots -- and then it's on to the recriminations as Ida refuses to forgive the shooter or his devastated wife, Amy (Tammy Blanchard), even as Gideon and the Amish elders reach out to Amy to offer forgiveness and comfort.

Actually, the Amish don't just attend the funeral of the shooter but march over a hilltop like an Amish army in a scene as over-staged as the Amish homes are underpopulated for a community in mourning.

Greg Champion directed "Amish Grace" from a script by Sylvie White and Teena Booth that tries to put a Lifetime gloss on the Amish matriarch. Ida briefly dabbles with rebelling and leaving her order and speaks out against the Amish practice of shunning because of its impact on her sister. A revelation from another shooting victim somehow motivates Ida to return to her Amish belief system and the issue of shunning ex-Amish, which never connected to the theme of "forgiveness" as it should have, disappears.

It's as if the filmmakers didn't have faith in this story of faith so they felt a need to inject drama that feels as manufactured as it is, including the plot of a TV news reporter whose boss is incredulous about the forgiveness the Amish offer the shooter and his wife.

In addition, the film looks like it was made on the cheap. The Amish men's beards appear to have been recycled from the ABC comedy "Cavemen" and the locations don't look much like Lancaster, probably because it was filmed near Los Angeles

There's certainly a valuable message about forgiveness in this story but it needs to be handled by a better filmmaker, someone like Paul Greengrass who made "United 93," the movie about the 9/11 hijacking of the commercial airliner that crashed near Somerset. He took a subject that could have been treacly and elevated it above its most obvious trappings.

But there's nothing graceful about "Amish Grace," a paint-by-numbers cable movie whose telecast may well prove the wisdom of an electricity-free way of life.

LMN is carried on Channel 119 on traditional Comcast systems and Channel 163 on former Adelphia systems, Channel 141 or in HD on Channel 641 on Verizon's Fios TV, Channel 426 or in HD on Channel 192 on Armstrong, Channel 109 on DISH Network and Channel 253 on DirecTV.

TV editor Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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