Streaming Releases: Preaching to the Choir: Unbridled (2017) - Reviewed

Why aren't faith based films taken seriously? It’s a busy industry, and there's certainly a ready and willing audience for it. And while it's highly unlikely that the new Kevin Sorbo film opening this weekend will do enough business to put a dent in Jigsaw, the fact that it and films like it get even the corner broom closet theater at your local 20-plex says quite a bit for the popularity of such films. So what's keeping these films, with few notable exceptions, from breaking through into mainstream success? Perhaps it's not the message, but the quality of its delivery. Questionable quality is the major weakness of faith-based filmmaking, and the new film Unbridled can't quite overcome it, though it isn't for lack of trying. 

Unbridled is inspired by the story of North Carolina's Corral Riding Academy, where troubled young women find peace and comfort while learning to care for horses who themselves have had a rough life. The film tells the story of 17-year-old Sarah (Tea McKay), a victim of sexual abuses alluded to but only vaguely confronted. Taken from her home after the arrest of her mother's sex trafficker boyfriend Roger (Eric Roberts, who has never said no to playing a total scumbag), Sarah finds herself as an outcast among outcasts at the academy, struggling to fit in and get her life back to normal. Sarah finds her kindred spirit in a troubled horse named Dreamer as she works to get her life back on track again. 

Unbridled falls into so many of the traps that befall faith based filmmaking. No cliché is left unturned here. Most of the ancillary come off initially as abrasive and unlikable, particularly toward Sarah. You can expect that they’ll find redemption by film's end, but it would have been nice to see a bit more depth, particularly in the other girls at the academy. As for the capital-M Message? Unbridled goes easy on the heavy-handedness, with a couple of slightly awkward but unobtrusive exceptions. The same points could have easily been made more subtly, which could have gone a long way toward capturing the interest of the coveted secular audience who may just enjoy a good tearjerker about a girl and her horse. While the acting is actually above average, particularly the talented young McKay who gracefully carries the film, the story falls into so many of the same old predictable ruts. 

McKay's impressive performance is the saving grace of what is otherwise a cloying, paint-by-numbers drag. Faith based films can find secular acceptance without giving up on their Message; they just need to find interesting and creative ways to do it. Unbridled, with its dark sex trafficking subplot and relatable tale of a young women overcoming her struggles and finding herself again, could have been a lot more impactful had it avoided the clichés and just told a great story. Alas, Unbridled stumbles out of the gate, assuring its place as another ho-hum, by-the-numbers faith based film that will likely not find acceptance past the faithful legions. 

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-Mike Stec