Scott Pryor and Livi Birch in Tulsa (Photo: Pryor Entertainment)
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Scott Pryor & Gloria Stella
STARS Scott Pryor, Livi Birch
Tulsa is the third faith-based film from 2020 that does more right than wrong. Considering the wretched quality of previous faith-based flicks (particularly those Left Behind and Atlas Shrugged atrocities), that almost constitutes a miracle. But if I Still Believe (reviewed here) was elevated by its slick production values and Shooting Heroin (reviewed here) by its exemplary cast, then this latest achievement largely succeeds due to its generosity of spirit. Despite the occasional ham-fisted proselytizing as well as some predictable paths taken by the story, the film never feels less than honest and sincere in its messages of acceptance and inclusivity. After four years under the rule of a divisive White (House) Supremacist, such a declaration could not be more welcome at this time.
Nine-year-old Livi Birch plays Tulsa, who’s been bounced around foster homes following the death of her mother. After her most recent foster mom proves to be an abusive shrew, Tulsa is placed into the hands of a hardworking social worker named Jaylene (Nicole Marie Johnson). Tulsa tells Jaylene not to worry about finding her a new home since she happens to know the identity of her biological father. That would be Tommy Colston (Scott Pryor), a former Marine who splits his time between working in his auto shop and numbing his pain with pills and alcohol. Since Jaylene knows Tommy from their high school days, she has no trouble hooking them up — instead, the trouble comes from Tommy insisting he’s not ready to become a father. But little Tulsa will not be deterred: She moves into Tommy’s home, throws away all of his cigarettes and booze, and begins ordering him around. Tommy finds her to be quite the pill, but he nevertheless follows her instructions (however reluctantly). He bristles, however, at her suggestion that he become a devout Christian just like her and her late mother.
Tulsa is the type of character generally only found on TV sitcoms: the precocious child who’s mature beyond her years and thus knows more about everything than the adults surrounding her. It’s often a tough character to swallow, but Birch is so excellent in the role that it’s easy for viewers to follow Tommy’s cue and just surrender to her. Her dynamic presence enlivens the film, and she receives able support from Johnson as the concerned care worker and The Dukes of Hazzard’s John Schneider as a straight-shooting doctor. As for Pryor, he often exhibits less range than Keanu Reeves, although since he’s also the film’s co-director, co-writer, and co-producer, it helps explain how he got the part. He definitely possesses a measure of screen presence, and he’s quite good when he’s required to punch across his character’s low-key demeanor and world-weary resignation. But when he’s asked to hit those upper emotions, it gets tricky, as his expression when he’s told that his daughter might die isn’t significantly more animated than when he’s working on a car.
The story is more formulaic in the early going, but there are some unexpected — and hard-hitting — developments that unfold later in the film. There’s significantly more darkness than I expected with such a tale and with the initial approach, but that only strengthens the movie’s messaging. Tommy Colston is clearly a lost soul, and while his transformation through Tulsa occurs a tad too abruptly (a couple more in-between scenes would have helped), it’s gratifying to see him agreeing with the Biblical Isaiah that a child shall lead.
(Tulsa will be available on DVD and on streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Google Play, and iTunes beginning February 2.)