Michelle Monaghan heads a strong cast in a timely true story about an Afghani woman seeking U.S asylum

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Monaghan's modest, energetic performance makes Saint Judy — which might have been a dry textbook lesson — engaging and moving

Topical films on pertinent social issues were among the most striking entries at this year’s LA Film Festival. One of the most affecting, Saint Judy, tells a true story about a lawyer who fought an immigration battle on behalf of a woman seeking asylum in the U.S. to escape persecution in her home country of Afghanistan. As the Trump administration tries to restrict the number of people who are allowed to enter the country, the story of attorney Judy Wood and her battles on behalf of a Muslim woman takes on special urgency. The film, directed by Sean Hanish, sometimes turns didactic, but it benefits from the efforts of an exceptional cast; their work deserves to be seen.

Wood is played by Michelle Monaghan, and her performance is the chief reason to watch the movie. The story bears some resemblance to that of another tireless legal eagle, Erin Brockovich, and if this pic lacks the drive that director Steven Soderbergh and Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts brought to their story of a woman crusading for people without a voice, it still compels.

Monaghan has given a series of gritty performances that haven’t always received the attention they deserve, and she is once again perfectly cast as an imperfect, beleaguered but always intrepid single mother and tireless advocate for marginalized members of society. The film’s title, by the way, is ironic, since “Saint Judy” is the name given to Wood by those who are somewhat put off by her single-mindedness. One of these people is her ex-husband (Peter Krause), who feels that Wood isn’t as devoted to their son as to the legal crusades that consume her.

At the beginning of the film, Wood relocates from New Mexico to California and goes to work at a legal clinic handling immigration cases. When she visits an Afghan woman who is threatened with deportation, she recognizes that the woman has been drugged to keep her calm, and although Wood’s boss (Alfred Molina) tries to convince her that the case is hopeless, Judy resolves to learn more about her client’s background. In Afghanistan, Asefa (eloquently played by Leem Lubany) was threatened by the Taliban for fighting to empower women and especially to start a school for girls. She sought asylum in America, but since there was at that time no legalized protection for women battling a patriarchal establishment, her case seems hopeless.

Wood believes otherwise and eventually takes the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. She argues that if her client is forced to return to Afghanistan, she will likely be the victim of an honor killing by men who despise her activism. The court’s decision ultimately changed the ground rules for many women.

The film’s arguments are unobjectionable but occasionally overstated. Human drama is sometimes sacrificed to polemics, but the performances save the movie from earnestness. Lubany captures a believable transformation from wounded woman to more hopeful advocate. Molina is entertaining as the boss who dismisses Judy’s idealism but eventually comes to be inspired by it. In perhaps the most compelling scenes, Judy argues her case before an immigration court (held in a makeshift hut in the detention facility) presided over by Alfre Woodard as the judge and Common as the prosecutor who eventually comes over to Judy’s side. Both actors vividly flesh out scenes that might have been purely expository.

But it is Monaghan who keeps the movie on track, capturing Judy’s fire along with her sometimes aggravating tenacity. This honest actress is incapable of idealizing the characters she plays, and her modest, energetic performance makes Saint Judy — which might have been a dry textbook lesson — engaging and moving.