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Film Review: Absolutism’s Destructive Power in ‘As It Is in Heaven’

AsItIsinHeaven4“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”

2 Peter 3:10

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.”

1 Corinthians 3:19

– King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Cambridge Edition

AsItIsinHeaven5As It Is in Heaven (which had its Tennessee premiere as a New Directors Feature at the Nashville Film Festival) begins with a young woman (Meredith Cave) singing the hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood?” as she walks from a large house to waterside where a small group of believers are gathered. They’re watching Edward (John Lina), their group leader who’s also known as “The Prophet,” baptize Eric (Chris Nelson) and transform him into David, “The Beloved of God.”

That’s the simple, gentle start to the feature debut of director Joshua Overbay, whose previous work includes Transposition, a national finalist in the 2009 Student Academy Awards competition. The Asbury University professor, working on a very small budget buoyed by a Kickstarter campaign with a mix of professionals and students that includes his wife, screenwriter Ginny Lee Overbay, cinematographer Isaac Pletcher and editor Lauren Nicolette has crafted an engrossing 86-minute look at the very human need (particularly in these uncertain times) to feel something better lies ahead as well as the destructive power of absolutism.

AsItIsinHeaven1After the warm welcome of that baptism the tale moves ahead one year. Edward has told his followers that the end of the world is nigh; he also believes that David is God’s instrument. A fall and his refusal to seek medical treatment send Edward on before the final worldly reckoning, and David becomes convinced that the Almighty has picked him to lead the “chosen people” of this small cult to Heaven just 30 days from now. The prophet’s son Eamon (Luke Beavers, also the movie’s casting director) isn’t so sure that David is the anointed of God, however, and tragedies along the way raise questions about whether the new leader is acting from the Lord’s wishes or his own.

This film, which was shot in 2012 in the Lexington, Ky. area, succeeds with good cinematic storytelling that doesn’t preach or judge. The director’s rhythmic pacing, the screenwriter’s unembellished structure and the cinematographer’s nuance with a wide lens combine with focused performances and the growing poignancy of Ben Zoeller and Timothy Morton’s music to weave a compelling, initially comforting but ultimately chilling cinematic composition.

AsItIsinHeaven6It’s chilling because we progressively see how David’s certitude and his demand for total obedience lead him and the other sect members down a very dark and desolate path. Abi Van Andel is particularly striking as David’s oh-so-willing disciple Naomi – a calm voice and often-deadened eyes speak of someone who finds her place as the leader’s right hand. Beavers handles the warring emotions of his passed-over son deftly; Jin Park is touching as the understandably confused new convert Abiella; Shannon Kathleen Baker’s Deb provides true heart-break; Lina’s Edward is just what you’d expect the paternalistic founder of religious sect might be; and Nelson has a bravura turn while taking his character from earnest and awkward follower to inspired and all-too-assured leader.

This very well-executed project deserves a wide theatrical release; the director says openings in Seattle, Lexington and New York are already scheduled as he and his colleagues work to book more. As It Is in Heaven is another fine example of strong contemporary cinema from truly independent American filmmakers.

AsItIsinHeaven2For updates about As It Is in Heaven follow the film on Twitter and Facebook. This film has not yet been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America; 86 min. Produced by Michael Grout and Nathaniel Glass with executive producers Aaron Holmes, Isaac Pletcher, Joshua Overbay, Nathaniel Glass, Christopher Free. Directed by Joshua Overbay, written by Ginny Lee Overbay from a story by Ginny Lee Overbay and Joshua Overbay, cinematography by Isaac Pletcher, editing by Lauren Nicolette, music by Ben Zoeller and Timothy Morton, production design by Meg Barker. Starring Chris Nelson, John Lina, Abi Van Andel, Luke Beavers, Shannon Kathleen Baker, Sylvia Boykin, Jin Park, Meredith Cave, Todd Bagley, Kassandra Botts, Carola Lina and Janelle M. Gore.

AsItIsinHeavenPoster2*Production stills by Isaac Pletcher and poster by Meg Barker courtesy Joshua OverbayEmbark Visuals and Tracking Shot Productions.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).