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Praise, With Qualifications, 'All Creatures Here Below'

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In All Creatures Here Below, the low-budget drama from writer-actor David Dastmalchian and director Colin Schiffli, a pair of traumatized adults go on the run after one steals money from a cockfighting organizer and one steals an infant from her neighbor. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.

Gensan (the recognizable character actor Dastmalchian) and Ruby (Karen Gillam, whose name — if not whose face — should be familiar as the actor behind Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) are deeply troubled folks. The opening 15 minutes establish their miserable circumstances. He's a line cook at a chain pizza shop in L.A. and gets laid off when corporate decides to shift to a carryout business model. She's a temporary cleaner who gets booted from her gig cleaning a church when she comes too close to the adjacent school. She has a few items on her rap sheet, unexplained until late in the film, involving kids.

These are folks on government assistance who do things like plumb garbage bins for recyclables to supplement their income and who think of lotto tickets as investments. Both Dastmalchian and Gillam play their roles with tenderness bordering on the lachrymose. At first, the whole project feels somewhat exploitative, actors trying their best to portray emotionally and intellectually stunted characters living in poverty.

And while the script ultimately complicates this impression, it doesn't do so until the film's final act, after Gensan and Ruby have been on the run for a few days, growing to love the infant whom they've stolen. In one scene at a thrift store, Gensan is dismissive of what he regards as an expensive baby seat. A few seconds later, he's marveling at a model with a racing stripe and an additional safety bar, admitting that it's probably worth the extra 10 dollars.

It turns out Gensan and Ruby aren't a conventional couple. We watch them have passionless intercourse early in the film that suggests a relationship from which the flame has died. But the truth is they were both victims — together — of heinous physical abuse as children. Both are obviously coping in different ways. And when they return to the scene of their abuse with the hopes of moving on once and for all, their crimes catch up with them, leading to a devastating finale.

On paper, the script was likely a careful and even elegant work. There are subtle hints of Gensan's and Ruby's dark history throughout: Ruby has nightmares, for example. And Gensan's cruelest insult is calling Ruby a "dummy," presumably an artifact of their youth. But so much of the film is the two of them bickering in cars and hotel rooms, bumbling through their misunderstandings of parenting in scenes that are sometimes unwatchably awkward. The redemptive explanation arrives all at once, and perhaps too late for impatient audiences.

The title comes from the doxological Christian hymn, based on text by Thomas Kern: "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise God, all creatures here below; Praise God above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The title is surely not to be interpreted as a song of praise, but perhaps as a song of tolerance. This movie reminds us that the world is full of people living with extraordinary pain and hardship, and that — though they may seem dirty or even despicable — they too are worthy of love.

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