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"Amish Grace": Learning to forgive the unforgiveable

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I read an article recently about the Lifetime brand struggling with its identity; it doesn't know whether to be the hip network that airs "Project Runway" or the women-in-jeopardy, serious drama network that skews a little older.

I enjoy Heidi and the gang, but I wouldn't want to give up a film like "Amish Grace" (Lifetime Movie Network, channel 47, 8 tonight). It's a thoughtful, well-acted piece that explores some intriguing issues in an approachable way.

The film is based on a book of the same name that chronicled the 2006 shooting that killed five girls in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. (The authors of the book have distanced themselves from the film, mostly out of respect for the Amish, who didn't want it made.) While many details of the actual tragedy remain, much has been changed for dramatic purposes.

It's essentially the story of two mothers; Kimberly Williams-Paisley plays Ida Garber, mother of one of the victims, a vibrant teen who was in the midst of her first day as a teacher's assistant. The other mother is Amy Roberts, (Tammy Blanchard) the wife of the shooter.

Garber has a sister who is being shunned by the Amish for leaving and living among "the English" (that's the rest of us); but she defies that and still contacts her sister, even talking to her husband about sending their daughter to her sister, and college.

So when the shooting happens, it sets up her anger and unwillingness to forgive. How could her community shun her sister who simply fell in love with one of the English and forgive the man who murdered five of their daughters?

Roberts' challenge is accepting the support of the Amish and their forgiveness of her husband, a man whom she loved and who did something unfathomable.

The performances are good in this film, but what really works is the script by Teena Booth, who also wrote "The Pregnancy Pact", a blockbuster for the network earlier this year. The script includes a TV reporter (Fay Masterson) who with her cameraman (Eugene Byrd) get the story, and end up investigating the Amish's forgiveness. They've never seen anything like this (the Amish come to Roberts home on the day of the shooting to offer support) and they want to know if all the Amish are forgiving or are being forced to toe the elders' party line.

At first the digging seems really cynical, but what it does, what the Garber character does, is make the Amish three-dimensional, rather than saints on earth. Indeed, there's even a scene in the film of NBC's Today show's Ann Curry painting the Amish with that broad brush, as most of the media did when the crime happened. I'm not doubting the faith of the Amish, but they are human and they faced a horrible tragedy. Forgiveness is a struggle for ANY human.

Roberts' struggling, too, is beautifully rendered. It could not be easy to accept kindness from people your husband destroyed. Blanchard's character realistically deals with the pain of acceptance, the desire to try to do something, anything to make things right, the anger for her husband's betrayal.

And then there is the discussion about forgiveness. One sign of its complexity: nobody from Roberts' church shows up for her husband's funeral, while the Amish come en masse.

"Amish Grace" manages to present these somewhat heady notes and still be, well, a Lifetime movie. You get to think and you get weepy. Good stuff.

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About the blogger

Adrienne Johnson Martin would like to have her life turned into an animated cartoon. E-mail Adrienne.