July 9 2014 12:00 AM

Lansing indie ‘Ashes of Eden’ aims high with morality play


The Bible is so hot, you guys. Besides the recent surprise hit films “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is for Real,” there was “Son of God,” yet another biopic of Jesus, and “Noah,” which confused just as many devout filmgoers as it angered with the liberties it took from its Old Testament roots. Coming soon: Christian Bale begs Pharaoh to let his people go in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” this fall, and “Mary,” the prequel to “The Passion of the Christ” coming next spring.

With all the A-list Bible stories gobbled up by the big studios, leave it to the indie filmmakers to dig into some of the less epic parts. There’s a lot of ways you can go.

“Ashes of Eden” is a Lansing-based independent film written, directed and produced by mid-Michigan filmmakers and starring local actors. It’s a loose retelling of the Prodigal Son parable, with a wayward son losing his way in the world.

When Redmond “Red” Duncan (Steven Sutherland) gets expelled from school on his 18th birthday, it sets off a chain reaction of events that finds the misguided lad stealing drugs from his girlfriend’s brother, Carlos (Carlucci Weyant), and getting tangled up with a middle-aged drug dealer (co-producer DJ Perry). His mother, Dana (Melissa Anschutz), is a police officer in town, and her partner, Shawn (played by film’s writer/director Shane Hagedorn), is the one routinely sent to hunt him down.

Anschutz invests the film with a painful longing for … something (her husband? a sober son?), which gives the film a distinct resonance. Weyant proves to be a charismatic evil force that’s just this side of detestable. Sutherland, an intense young actor, deftly captures the fear and anger central to Red’s decline, even as the film’s plot (which suffers from severely spotty logic) works overtime to make Red’s situation impossible.

Really? He’s expelled for smelling like pot? By the principal, who’s also his mother’s boyfriend? And this is after he stays strong and just says no? Come on, that’s gotta count for something. It’s almost like there’s a higher force trying to screw him over.

Which is where the religious imagery starts to creep in. Drugs are bad, mmkay, church is good. When Dana lugs Red and his brother to church, it takes about as well as you think it does. His girlfriend (Mayra Leal) is an absolute Angel. Named Angela. Who’s dressed like an angel when we first meet her. Similarly, Carlos always appears and disappears in clouds of smoke.

The spotty logic applies to proper hospital, police and drug dealer procedures (or from what I’ve picked up from “E.R.,” “Law & Order” and “New Jack City.”) But maybe I’m just overthinking it.

The target audience for “Ashes of Eden” is young churchgoers about to enter the world of peer pressure who aren’t immune to heavy-handed sermonizing and incredulous plot twists. But that’s not me. The acting is good, overall. The production values are solid. And Lansing-area viewers will probably be excited to see local areas popping in the background (so long, Bar 30, we barely knew ya!). But Hagedorn, also the film’s editor, just needed to be a little more brutal with the cutting tool than with his characters’ pitfalls.

That said, I’m eager to see what Hagedorn and company cook up next. “Ashes of Eden” shows glimmers of excellence, and the film effectively wallows in a believable gloom. Next time, hopefully, it will be a little more grounded in reality. Or at least a better Bible story.

“Ashes of Eden” opens Friday at Celebration! Cinema Lansing & IMAX.

“Ashes of Eden” (NR)

105 minutes Celebration! Cinema Lansing & IMAX 5:45 p.m. & 8:45 p.m. Friday, Tuesday & Wednesday; noon, 5:45 p.m. & 8:45 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 200 E. Edgewood Blvd., Lansing (517) 393-7469, celebrationcinema.com