Saint Judy

Michelle Monaghan plays real-life immigration lawyer Judy Wood in "Saint Judy."

In “Saint Judy,” it’s unclear whether immigration attorney Judy Wood was given that nickname in good faith or not. “Do you know why they call you ‘Saint Judy’?” her ex-husband sneers at one point. “It’s not because you are a saint. It’s because you act like you’re one.”

But the movie itself has no such equivocation. To director Sean Hanish and screenwriter Dmitry Portnoy, Wood has earned her halo for her fight for refugees, including being responsible for a landmark change in U.S. immigration law. And while the film occasionally casts Wood in a little too rosy a glow to be quite believable, by the end of “Saint Judy,” a lot of uplifted audience members will be ready to nominate her for sainthood as well.

Hanish, a Milwaukee native and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, will appear at the 7:45 p.m. Saturday screening of “Saint Judy” at Marcus Point, 7825 Big Sky Drive, and will talk about the film afterward.

Michelle Monaghan brings a steely resolve to Wood, who, when the film opens, is a crackerjack attorney in New Mexico. She relocates her son (Gabriel Bateman) to Los Angeles so he can be closer to his father (Peter Krause), and takes a job as an immigration lawyer. Her boss (Alfred Molina) expects her to close cases as fast as possible – “This is your new best friend,” he says unsubtly, giving her a rubber stamp.

But that’s not how Wood operates. She has boundless empathy for clients and their plight, and watching these frightened, suspicious refugees open up and tell their stories to her is one of the most moving parts of the film.

Wood is particularly moved by the plight of an Afghani woman named Asefa (Leem Lubany), held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in federal detention for over a year, so heavily medicated that she’s insensible. Once Wood is able to get her off the medication and hear her story, she finds that Asefa started a school for girls and was beaten and raped by police as a result.

She’s seeking asylum, but immigration law at the time doesn’t recognize women as a protected refugee status like an ethnic or political minority. With thousands of female refugees in a similar legal position, facing almost certain death if deported to their home countries, Wood is determined to change that.

For those who enjoyed “On the Basis of Sex,” which followed a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight against gender discrimination, “Saint Judy” is a legal drama that hits similarly satisfying notes. Wood faces skepticism at every turn, from her bosses, from her legal peers, even from her clients. It’s complicated and unglamorous legal work — the courtroom Wood argues Asefa’s case in is a modified trailer — but Portnoy’s screenplay makes the complex issues and the underlying stakes clear to the viewer at every turn.

A movie about the plight of refugees and the treatment of immigrants feels especially urgent in the era of “Build the Wall!” and “Saint Judy” doesn’t flinch from engaging the debate. Common, playing a government immigration attorney with misgivings about his work, has a potent speech about what changed in America when the Immigration and Naturalization Service was renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement. What was a “service” to immigrants became “enforcement,” and “words matter.”

Some of the rah-rah flourishes in “Saint Judy” get to be a little much, like the use of anthemic pop songs on the soundtrack that would better fit in the trailer, or needless use of dramatic slo-mo. But then the camera snaps back to Monaghan, radiating dignity and determination, and “Saint Judy” wins us over.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.