Michelle Monaghan delivers a compelling performance as attorney Judy Wood in this biopic, Saint Judy. She captures Wood’s fire and aggravating tenacity. Picture: Supplied
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 the true story about a lawyer who fought an immigration battle on behalf of a woman seeking asylum in the US 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 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. 

She is cast as an imperfect, beleaguered but always intrepid single mother and tireless advocate for marginalised members of society. 

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 recognises that the woman has been drugged to keep her calm, and although Wood’s boss (Alfred Molina) tries to convince her 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 no legalised protection for women battling a patriarchal establishment, her case seemed hopeless. Wood believes otherwise and takes it to the Circuit Court of Appeals. 

She argues that if her client is forced to return to Afghanistan, she will probably be the victim of an honour killing. 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.

Monaghan keeps the movie on track, capturing Judy’s fire along with her aggravating tenacity. The actress is incapable of idealising the characters she plays, and her modest, energetic performance makes Saint Judy - which might have been a dry textbook lesson - engaging and moving.