Back in March, Angel Studios made history with their film His Only Son. The biblical drama, which told the story of Abraham, was the first nationwide theatrical release to be crowdfunded. The $250,000 endeavor grossed over $12 million in its run, and was another feather in the cap for the studio that successfully marketed its TV show The Chosen so well that it got the generally disinterested moviegoing crowd of middle-agers out to the theater to pay for what they could watch on their TVs for free.
Mere months later, Angel returns to multiplexes nationwide with Sound of Freedom, which has been the low-key surprise of the summer. In contrast to its previously released retelling of an often-unsung biblical story, Sound of Freedom is rooted in looking at the widescale, global crisis that is child sex trafficking. The film stars Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) as Tim Ballard, a real-life Homeland Security agent who formed Operation Underground Railroad, an anti-sex trafficking organization predicated on nabbing pedophiles and rescuing children.
Before we get to Ballard, we’re dropped in Honduras where a man named Roberto (José Zúñiga) lets his two children, Miguel (Lucás Ávila) and Rocío (Cristal Aparicio), be recruited for a modeling gig by a former beauty queen (Yessica Borroto). He drops them off for an interview and a photoshoot in a grungy hotel room, and later that night, returns to see the room empty and everyone gone without a trace. The children have been sold into sex slavery.
Cut to Ballard, who is tracking down internet child porn peddlers with great success, having arrested close to 300 crooks. But Ballard’s job only lets him get the perpetrators. The victims remain victims. His recent success results in Miguel being reunited with his dad while Rocío remains missing. He convinces his boss to send him to Colombia for an elaborate sting that could bring home over 50 children. Ballard links up with Vampiro (Bill Camp), a former cartel member who now works to save children from sex trafficking. The two attempt to lure criminals to a lavish island with promises of hordes of children and have the rug pulled out from under them in the process.
Sound of Freedom is a movie with a message. Sure, countless films every year have important messages, but Sound of Freedom insists its takeaway over and over: “God’s children are not for sale.” Get ready to see bumper stickers and shirts with that slogan in no time. Most honest, decent people will agree with that sex trafficking is quite possibly the scummiest black mark on the human race that there is, but where Alejandro Monteverde’s film could’ve given us both a strong message with an equally strong story, it only gives the latter about half the attention it does when it comes to driving home how amoral something that is already deeply condemned really is.
The routinely committed Caviezel turns in a solid performance, but it’s a shame that we learn desperately little about Ballard despite spending more than two hours with him. He is about as distinguishable as the many police officers we see in various TV procedurals. We infer via framed photos on his desktop that he’s a family man, even though his wife (Mia Sorvino) — who apparently inspired the real-life Ballard to create Operation Underground Railroad — and children are all-but absent from this story. Mostly, Ballard is seen as an infatigable superhero who, after one conversation, was moved to care more deeply about the victims of trafficking.
Probably the worst attribute in Sound of Freedom is the music. Javier Navarrete’s score is incessant in how it tells us exactly how we should feel and when we should feel a certain way in nearly every sequence. The harpsichords ring loud when we should feel joy. The strings are slow and methodical when we should feel sad and uneasy. The score is as emotionally manipulative as it gets, and it frustratingly overplays its hand at so many points that the entire experience feels manufactured.
That’s one of the only missteps Sound of Freedom makes in the aesthetic department. The cinematography — by Gorka Gómez and Andreu Aec — is gorgeous, with many deft uses of shadows and lighting to curate both ambiance and mood. It’s a cut-above similar fare in the looks department, and is also bolstered by a few performances. One of the reasons Bill Camp’s Vampiro stands out is, unlike Caviezel, he is written as an actual character, particularly in a monologue that has Vampiro revealing what led him to start rescuing children. The two children at the story’s core, Lucás Ávila and Cristal Aparicio, are also very effective in their small beats, their wide-eyed gazes and genuine expressions of fear remind us of the very real (and very young) human capital on the line in this sickening $150 billion industry.
Beyond the smaller elements, the film does play well as a linear search-and-rescue story that is underscored by multiple effective sequences. The aforementioned scenes on the island are tense and realized (especially considering it shouldn’t be all-too-unfamiliar from real-life horrors), and a scene when Ballard buddies up to a pedophile pretending to be cut from the same cloth has you remaining curious as to how far the interactions will go.
It’s in these moments that Sound of Freedom pumps the brakes on trying to be important and simply tries telling an engaging story with context and detail.
As the credits role, Jim Caviezel asserts that Sound of Freedom has the potential to be the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin for 21st-century slavery,” and empowers viewers to spread the word, scan the on-screen QR code, and purchase tickets so others can see the film. The intent of Angel Studios and those involved with Sound of Freedom is fair and just, but the apathy I felt about any meaningful change coming from this sudden summer surprise was real. If we as Americans didn’t have such ballless leaders who, in all honesty, probably benefit in some ways from these crimes, we could maybe see this film as a tremendous start for change. Ultimately, it’s a middle-of-the-road picture that might usher in more discussion on the matter, but for most of us, that’s all we can do is talk.
NOTE: Sound of Freedom is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Bill Camp, Eduardo Verástegui, José Zúñiga, Lucás Ávila, Cristal Aparicio, Mira Sorvino, and Yessica Borroto. Directed by: Alejandro Monteverde.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!