Screen Door Jesus

“Screen Door Jesus” is an overlooked, ignored gem. I almost said “forgotten,” but that’s not true. Anyone who’s actually seen it isn’t likely to forget it anytime soon.

Crafted like a sprawling Robert Altman film, it has dozens of characters occupying the small town of Bethlehem, Texas, where religion plays a part in everyone’s lives. What makes it different from most films about small Southern towns, though, is that the religion is treated intelligently and knowingly, rather than merely being used as a shorthand method of describing someone. (How many movies feature characters summed up as “narrow-minded Christian from the South”?)

The central event is that old Miss Harper (Cynthia Dorn) has discovered a shape on her screen door that looks like Jesus. Soon her front yard is overrun by pilgrims eager to see the Lord and worship at His screen door image. The whole town’s in a tizzy about it.

That’s the story that unifies everything, but there are literally a dozen or more subplots involving a score of other townspeople. Not since “The Simpsons” have you seen a city so full of minor characters who make their personalities and lives known to us in just a couple scenes.

There are the Cunninghams, Vernalynn and Earl, who disagree on how to care for their grandsons, who are staying with them for the summer. Vernalynn believes TV is inherently evil; Earl does not.

There’s Robroy Conroy (Eugene P. Williams), whose mother is dying but whose grandmother doesn’t believe in hospitals, preferring to put everything in God’s hands.

Consider also Sharon (Alaina Kalanj), a beautiful blonde who has come back to town after a long absence and struck up a courtship with a local police officer. He’s not a believer, though, and their different attitude toward religion pose a problem.

There’s also a racist bank officer, a couple of scoundrels trying to do some illegal oil drilling, a white-trash girl who seeks to blackmail the mayor, and a long-standing feud between brothers over a woman.

All of these stories add flavor as the film examines the role of faith in middle America, the way religion can be used for honest devotion and rank hypocrisy — even within the same person. Most of these people are religious and Christian, but they’re not all the same kinds of Christians. They go to different churches and have different beliefs, not to mention different ways of expressing those beliefs. Who’s to say one way is better than another?

Based on a series of short stories by Christopher Cook, the movie was written and directed by Kirk Davis, who had not made a feature film before. That’s astonishing, given how proficient “Screen Door Jesus” is. It’s exceptionally well composed and photographed (by cinematographer Dan Stoloff), with a way of bouncing from one story to another that’s rhythmic and comfortable. He also avoids giving much exposition, which proves to be a wise choice. We’re compelled to keep watching and pay attention to figure out who everyone is and how they’re connected — and we don’t mind, because we like spending time with the characters in the meantime.

The film does have its clunky moments. It’s seldom laugh-out-loud funny, and certainly not as often as it would like to be, though it is consistently amusing. One character dies in a most unbelievable manner, and some story lines are handled better than others. It’s also peculiar in that it would seem to appeal most to religious people, but its salty language would tend to drive many religious viewers away. Maybe that means it’s best for well-adjusted religious people who can appreciate a thoughtful, respectful look at their faith and put up with a little cussing. You know who you are.

B (1 hr., 55 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some sexual dialogue.)