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(2003) *** R
100 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Ed Solomon. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, Dorian Harewood.

Screenwriter Ed Solomon famously wrote secular hits like the "Bill and Ted" movies and the original Men in Black, but now--as writer and director of the independent film Levity--Solomon nuzzles into more spiritual territory. Like most "independent" films these days, Levity boasts a roster of top Hollywood talent: actors Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter, Morgan Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, editor Pietro Scalia (Oscar winner for Black Hawk Down), and cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasn't There). But by Hollywood standards, Solomon's story is uncommonly gentle, reflective, and, mildly, religious.

Solomon sends up flags immediately by naming Thornton's character Manual Jordan. "Manuel" means "God is with us," and "Manual" with an "a" expands Solomon's writerly conceit to the work of human hands (or a "handbook," such as the service book of a church). The river Jordan--besides being the spot Jesus was baptized, was the body of water the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land. Manual quite apparently needs God, rebirth, and promise in his life, having been unexpectedly and unwillingly released from prison after serving nineteen years of a murder sentence. He remains fixated on his teenage victim Abner Easely (Geoffrey Wigdor); Manual religiously tapes up a clipping of Abner, and Abner begins to appear, hauntingly, to him.

In a comic moment of serendipity, the driftless Jordan finds himself in the company of the jazzily-named preacher Miles Evans (Freeman). Miles wages a nightly uphill battle to reach his captive audience of wayward youth; in order to park in the community center lot--across the street from a rave club--the youngsters must submit to fifteen minutes of Miles's preaching. One of the youths, Sofia (Dunst) finds herself, like Manual, slowly but surely insinuated into the good works of Miles's mysterious ministry.

Manual works all night, and during the day he shadows, longingly and fumblingly, Adele Easely (Hunter), the sister of the man he killed. Tentatively, Manual begs Adele's indulgence, though he can't bring himself to admit his crime. Miles points out that Manual wants not, as he claims, to offer Adele something, but to redeem himself. As badly as he wants it, Manual admits in voice-over, "I know I'll never be redeemed." We, as an audience, know better that he'll at least come close, or there's no movie. The tender dance between the always great Hunter and "less is more" poster-boy Thornton evokes real feeling as well as intriguing theological quandaries.

That Solomon allows some ambiguity about the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption enriches what plays largely like a Sinner's Anonymous message movie. Manual's voice-over twice states the steps of redemption as he learned them: acceptance, remorse, making right with his neighbor, making right with God, and, in facing the same moment, making a new choice. By frontloading these ideas, Solomon makes it too easy for us to stay ahead of him, at least in the broad strokes (in terms of plot and supporting characters, Levity remains staunchly underdeveloped). A switcheroo or two and an undercurrent of dry wit maximized by the crack cast exert just enough "gravity" to keep the overtly symbolic story from floating off too soon.

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