Lawrence Toppman

‘Providence’ takes us silently into a sweet story

Most of us, under the right conditions, can be talked into seeing a film shot in black-and-white. We can even be convinced to watch a picture in a foreign language with English subtitles. But sit through a silent movie? You might as well tell someone to dial Central and ask the phone operator to put us through when our party comes on the line.

So the husband-and-wife team of Fred and Sharon Wilharm – he the producer, she the writer-director – have taken a chance with “Providence.” Though the soundtrack contains music and songs, nobody speaks for the 80 minutes needed to tell this story of childhood friends who spend their lives just missing each other romantically.

The rhythm of the story would have seemed natural to audiences 90 years ago, though the scenes then would have been intercut with printed dialogue on title cards. The approach takes some getting used to these days. Yet as you get into the flow of the narrative, and the strangeness of hearing no dialogue recedes, the movie becomes a rewarding experience.

The plot couldn’t be simpler: Rachel and Mitchell almost meet in a cemetery when they’re about 10, exchanging a wistful look. They do meet in high school, where he’s bullied and she’s middlingly popular, but they run in different crowds. A hint of possible romance goes nowhere, and they go on to adult lives that never quite seem fulfilling.

Both the teenaged actors (Josh Allen and Stacey Bradshaw) and the 40-ish adults (Juli Tapken and Rich Swingle) deliver low-key, natural performances. People unused to communicating emotions without words might be tempted to overact, but they don’t. The soundtrack occasionally breaks an emotional mood, jumping chaotically from soft jazz to hard rock to a tinkling piano across scenes, but the actors do not.

We’re used to hearing the noun “providence” with the adjective “divine” in front of it, so the title – which officially refers to the setting, a Tennessee town – implies a religious theme. Yet though the adult Mitchell ministers to a small Christian congregation, the religious message doesn’t seem hammered home.

Because we never hear his prayers, we don’t know whether he’s imploring God for guidance, patience and perception (which would be reasonable requests for anyone) or requesting a girlfriend (which would not, any more than asking God for a Cadillac or a winning lottery ticket). And the adult Rachel, who doesn’t have overt religious beliefs, seems just as sympathetic as the man she has spent her whole life almost getting to know.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Providence

Cast: Chase Anderson, Stacey Bradshaw, Juli Tapken, Rich Swingle.

Writer-director: Sharon Wilharm.

Length: 80 minutes.

Rating: Unrated (nothing objectionable).

Note: Fred and Sharon Wilharm and actress Irene Santiago will come to Charlotte’s Carolina Pavilion for a Q-and-A session after the 7 p.m. screening on Monday, Feb. 15.

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