Certain high profile tragic events – kidnappings, natural disasters, gruesome mass murders—lend themselves to the made-for-TV movie treatment with an almost preordained inevitability. Yet, there’s always that nagging question of necessity, of why (or whether) such unfathomably horrible events need to be dredged up and dramatically recreated. Amish Grace – a loose fictionalization of the aftermath of the truly unspeakably horrific 2006 massacre at a schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines – makes its claim for relevance by maintaining a respectful distance from the gory details of the central event, and concentrating instead on the internal spiritual struggle of a fictionalized Amish family directly impacted by this unfathomable crime.
Even if the ultimate result is to come up short on the verisimilitude side of the ledger, the film’s long leash of dramatic license may be the only reasonable and respectful choice for trying to make a film out the Nickel Mines shooting, both narratively and thematically. Trying to go for an exact recreation of events would most likely have proven tasteless and offensive across the board (no one is going to tolerate watching the graphic slaughter of innocent young girls). However, by filtering the events through the prism of the imagined Graber family (whose two daughters are placed in the schoolhouse), the film is able to have its cake and eat it too, in a way. It channels a mainline to the brutal impact of the shooting, without having to show it in actuality, and individualizes the grief of the tragedy by concentrating hard in on the suffering of a few people, rather than trying to encompass the Amish community as a whole.
Honing in on the personal also allows the film to deftly dodge the lure of lurid sensationalism of the shooting itself by shifting the focus on to the aftermath and the arduous personal process of healing and forgiveness. For the majority of its run time, Amish Grace concerns itself with the complex and difficult issues of faith and forgiveness in the wake of unspeakable tragedy and grief. While it couches its message in religious terms, the film never seems overtly preachy, preferring to convey its ideas in simple, practical language and action. Though of necessity specific in its portrayal of the particular Amish view of religion and the world, its ultimate message of dealing with violence and evil with forgiveness and mercy is meant to be seen as universal.
At times, however, the liberties the film takes, and the way it emphasizes the personal struggles of Ida Graber (the mother of the fictional family and central protagonist) and her frustration with the Amish elders and their stoic world view, draws Amish Grace dangerously close to crossing the line into more typical Lifetime movie fare. In a way, the film has no choice – it has to inject some sort of superficial dramatic conflict and momentum into the story, otherwise the movie would just lapse into a succession of bleak scenes of the Amish staring blankly into space as waves of overwhelm grief and despair crash over them.
So, to this end, Ida is portrayed as being at philosophical and religious odds with the general Amish community’s leader, who present a united front of unconditional forgiveness towards the shooter and the family he left behind. They reach out to shooter’s wife, who they see as much a victim as the Amish school girls. This does not sit well with Ida, understandably, and as she struggles to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen her, she also fights against the dominant religious ideas and social mores of the Amish community. Several times the film comes dangerously close to teetering into the familiar Lifetime Movie tropes of a wronged woman railing against abusive male dominance. While Ida’s anger is understandable, the film seems to become, in its latter portion, more and more about her beef with the Amish community and her husband (who toes the company line, as it were), and less about the struggle and pain of forgiving the unforgiveable.
In the end, Amish Grace saves itself from being derailed by the inherent tendencies of its format, mostly through the brute force of its emotional impact writ large. For a good portion of its run time, it’s a total three-hanky affair, verging on grief-porn. It’s hard not to get choked up when contemplating such a horrid, evil event, and if it often goes overlong on its scenes of women doubled over in convulsive, body-wracking crying, it’s only because it is too close to being the honest, and unbearable, truth.