From the outside, Tulsa has everything you need to tug at the heartstrings.
It's a story of redemption, and the catalyst is a precious and precocious nine-year-old girl named Tulsa (Livi Birch)
Scott Pryor, who also co-writes and co-directs, stars as Tommy, described as "a desperate marine biker" whose "life is turned upside-down when he is united with the sassy 9-year-old daughter he never knew existed."
Livi Birch shines, nailing Tulsa's inquisitive nature with a moral code that suggests she's driven by a higher power.
That's not a sentiment to take lightly, as Tulsa was cast into the foster care system at age seven when her mother died in a car accident.
It's not a system that treats kids with the care they need or deserve, but Tulsa makes up for it, caring for her little foster brother more than someone of her years and circumstances should allow.
It's through a chance encounter with a social worker and a photo Tulsa carried in her pocket of the father she never knew that Tommy comes into her life.
Tommy's behavior never impresses upon the audience that the addiction is anything to take too seriously, but he harbors a dark secret that only life with Tulsa will uncover.
Truthfully, Tulsa is adorable. She brings out the best in everyone, including her newfound father. She has a great love for Jesus, and she questions Tommy's lack of faith.
At times, it seems like the film is trying to be more than a Christian inspirational film, preaching the importance of accepting Jesus as your savior, but someone got a little gunshy hitting the message home.
In fact, there are a lot of messages that are too light, and that's why I cannot recommend the film.
Pryor and Ty DeMartino conceived the story and wrote the screenplay. Pryor directed with Gloria Stella. Scott and Laura Pryor produced the picture in conjunction with Stella, and after watching, all I can determine is that there were either too many voices at the table or not enough.
There are a lot of stories at play. There's Tulsa's short life, fraught with tragedy, Tommy's secret, his military background, and addiction, and the theme of Christianity, among other things.
Unfortunately, none of the stories are strong enough in their own right to demand the emotional investment for the messages struggling with each other to be heard.
To determine what it is, you need to know what it is not, but even by peeling away the layers, a clear direction isn't uncovered.
It's not a story about a junkie, so Tommy's not convincing as one. Swigging booze from the bottle and clasping a bottle of pills doesn't do the trick.
He has a somewhat tragic backstory that leaves him guilty and without hope. Tulsa is supposed to become Tommy's guiding light as Jesus is hers.
Except Tommy has no volatility. Pryor isn't a bad actor. His instincts are good, and his delivery often lands, especially in the comedic moments. Under better direction, Pryor could have found something deeper in the character. He wasn't able to achieve it on his own or with Stella.
I believe it's intended to be a timeless film that doesn't pinpoint when the story takes place, but I do know it's in a world that no longer exists where a nine-year-old girl can amble off to school down a town street with no more than a 'be careful.'
It's a world where a high school friend turned social worker can reacquaint her a man with the daughter he never knew he had without any regulation.
It's a world where a little girl with swelling on the brain that won't subside gleefully does her homework in the hospital and plays the banjo in the garden for a small crowd.
Through it all, though, I couldn't help thinking that I don't feel anything for a movie that required an emotional investment from the audience to help the filmmakers stick the landing.
This isn't a big budget film, and a good filmmaker doesn't need a large budget to make a good film. The pieces were in place to transcend any budgetary issues.
Pryor and Birch had chemistry that could have grown under better direction. Perhaps Pryor should have let go of the reins entirely, focusing on story and acting, and the film would have been better for it.
With so many names attached, the common denomonator is Pryor, and I can tell that this story was close to his heart. He should have had the courage to let it go so that his dreams could have been realized.
Instead, the movie the Pryor dedicated to his sister for inspiring those around her falls short of its goal to do the same for others.
Tulsa is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video and other VOD services.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.