The Story of Possum Trot’ Review

The East Texas town of Possum Trot received national notice in 2008 when ABC News, followed by “Oprah” and a slew of television shows that knew a heart-warmer when they saw it, sang the deserved praises of Rev. W.C. Martin and Donna Martin. The couple are the real-life basis of the faith-infused drama “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot,” opening July 4 after a Juneteenth sneak nationwide.

The minster, now a bishop, and the first lady of the Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in that piquantly named town of 600 were the leaders of an adoption crusade in the mid-’90s that changed the lives of more than 70 children who seemingly had been condemned to the foster care system. The children were among the hardest to place for various reasons, most of them speaking to the cruelty that people who have been wounded in their own lives, people who are trapped in addition inflict on the most powerless people in their own lives, their children. Who wouldn’t see the possibilities of an uplifting message movie in that saga?

Actor and executive producer Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) uses her super-humane powers to ensure the story of the Martins, their congregation and the community inspire even more people. Her company, 3.16 Prods., along with “Sound of Freedom” creators Angel Studios, have made a film that is likely to find an avid audience in non-denominational church folk but perhaps miss an opportunity to promote love as its more persuasive throughline.

Nika King portrays the dynamic Donna, who is more force than mere helpmate. King’s honeyed voiceover begins the film with a kind of sentimentalism about childhood and its innocence. A camera flies low over the rust-colored dirt roads, green hills and woods of “Deep East Texas 1996.” If that label doesn’t make a claim on the southern roots of the people, the opening gospel song will.

“You shine with something you will never have again: innocence,” says the narrator. This line turns out to be more complicated than it sounds because the children who figure so prominently in this tale of rescue never got to claim a sense of innocence. And Donna, the owner of those halcyon reminiscences, will have her own naiveté about childhood tested.

Demetrius Grosse wears the sharp and colorful vestments of W.C., and he does a sweet job of conveying a muscular kindness. Together Donna and W.C. make a loving team, but it’s her point of view, her parable of parenting. There’s a bit of gentle comedy in that it is Donna, not the reverend, who begins investigating adoption.

After her mother, a matriarch to so many, passes, Donna falls into despair. “My anchor was gone,” she says. For a spell she is unmoored. When it comes, her epiphany unfolds somewhat hurriedly. A teary beseeching is disrupted by children playing in a field. That vision leads her to straighten her backbone with a determination wrought of faith. King and Grosse bring a believable warmth to their characters’ spirit-led marriage. Still, the beautiful work of adoption can be challenging under far easier conditions.

Through the character of Susan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a stalwart champion working in the state’s child protective agency, the film makes clear what upheaval the children have experienced in their young lives. That violence — hinted at and depicted — trends toward the harder edge of the movie’s PG-13 rating. There is no splatter, but domestic terror unfolds during a 6-year-old girl’s 911 call to report her mother in danger. Mercedes (Aria Pullam) and brother Tyler (Asher Clay) are in the house as the harrowing confrontation unfolds with the operator trying her best to grasp the situation while keeping Mercedes safe.

It’s Donna’s sibling Diann (Jillian Reeves) who adopts a child first. Then Donna and W.C. make a home for Tyler and Mercedes. Other families follow. The way Donna welcomes her sister’s son is not entirely comfortable: “Our God is a good god,” she says, making an object of the little guy. Is it spectacle, a bold gesture of deep gratitude or both?

There were 22 families who made homes for 77 kids in Possum Trot. And though we don’t see all the families, the early adopters in this melodrama understand the stakes. When the Martins begin adopting children, they already have two. Princeton (Taj Johnson) has a learning disability due to lack of oxygen, while daughter Ladonna (Kaysi J. Bradley) increasingly struggles with the arrival of these new siblings who demand her parents’ attention.

The most demanding of the new arrivals is Teri (Diaana Babnicova). Susan is initially wary of placing the 12-year-old with the Martins. She doesn’t want to set them up to fail. And the tween has behavioral issues that include pretending to be a cat, as well as a vexed relationship to intimacy due to sexual assault. Babnicova gives a thoughtfully quiet performance as a girl who is emotionally shut down but also bristling with need.

The scenes of W.C. calling Teri out on her feline impersonation may satisfy moviegoers seeking quick, seemingly sensible interventions: If she’s going be a cat, then she’ll be fed like a cat. But these scenes, which add a kind of levity to the situation, also elide the deeply traumatized handful Teri is. To the filmmakers’ credit, the movie delves more deeply into her confusion, recoil and unhealthy decisions.

It’s the leads’ personable chemistry that helps tamp down the more proselytizing qualities of the script, which Weigel co-wrote with his wife, Rebekah. From the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Church has often been more generous-hearted and justice-tilted than its white evangelical counterparts.

The director cast himself as the white pastor of a well-heeled church amid its $1 million capital campaign. He has little time for the kind of compassion-led ministry the Martins and the Bennett congregation are engaged in. It’s a telling dig at megachurches and their gospel of prosperity that often leaves behind not just those in dire need, but also those most willing to walk the walk.

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