Review: ‘Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot,’ starring Nika King, Demetrius Grosse and Elizabeth Mitchell

July 6, 2024

by Carla Hay

Demetrius Grosse, Diaana Babnicova and Nika King in “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot”

Directed by Joshua Weigel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas from 1997 to 2000, the dramatic film “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” (based on true events) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with a few white people and Latin people ) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Christian reverend and his wife adopt kids who were abused and neglected, and they motivate other people in their community to also adopt needy kids. 

Culture Audience: “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of faith-based movies that tell inspirational true stories.

Aria Pulliam and Elizabeth Mitchell in “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” is a combination of good intentions and low-budget filmmaking that does the best with what the filmmakers have, even if some of the movie becomes overwrought and cliché. This faith-based drama oversimplifies what it takes to adopt and successfully raise kids who were abused and neglected in their previous homes. However, the movie’s call to action and effective storytelling outweigh the movie’s flaws.

Directed by Joshua Weigel, “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” (which takes place in the late 1990s) was co-written by spouses Joshua Weigel and Rebekah Weigel. (In the movie, Joshua Weigel has a small role as a supporting actor as a character named Pastor Mark.) The movie is based on true events that were chronicled in Reverend W.C. Martin’s 2007 non-fiction book “Small Town, Big Miracle: How Love Came to the Least of These.” The book and the movie tell the story of how Rev. Martin and his wife Donna motivated their Possum Trot community in Deep East Texas, to adopt 77 children who came from abused and neglected homes and were in the foster care system.

The movie begins in 1997, when Rev. Martin (played by Demetrius Grosse) and his homemaker wife Donna (played by Nika King) were living a relatively stable life with a loving family in a Deep East Texas community called Possum Trot. Donna is the intermittent voiceover narrator for this movie. She describes where she lives as the “piney woods of East Texas, where the Lord is easily found. This place, I have loved and hated.”

W.C. and Donna have a happy marriage, but life hasn’t been easy for them. They are the biological parents of two children. One of these children has disabilities. The spouses also have a fairly low household income and often worry about how they’re going to pay their bills.

Their elder child Princeton, nicknamed Prince (played by Taj Johnson), was born in 1981. Prince has learning disabilities because he had oxygen deprivation during childbirth. Prince does not talk but he can communicate through sounds and body movements. Although it’s not said out loud in the movie, Prince also seems to be on the autism spectrum, based on how frightened and agitated he gets from hearing certain sounds.

The couple’s younger biological child is LaDonna (played by Kaysi J. Bradley), who was born in 1987. Even though LaDonna is younger than Prince, she often has the responsibility of looking after Prince and helping take care of him. LaDonna is a typical child who likes to play and is friendly to almost everyone she meets.

Donna explains in the voiceover narration that she’s used to living in a low-income household. She was raised by a single mother who had 18 children. The way that Donna grew up, “you were rich if your roof didn’t leak,” she says in the voiceover narration.

Meanwhile, the movie shows a horrifying scene of two children witnessing their unnamed mother (played by Nikkita Johnson) getting shot to death by her abusive boyfriend or husband in their home somewhere in Texas. The older child is 6-year-old Mercedes (played by Aria Pulliam), who is terrified and on the phone to a 911 operator while she witnesses this heinous crime while she’s hiding in fear in an adjacent room. Mercedes’ younger brother Tyler (played by Asher Clay) is 2 years old and is in a crib in the same room where is mother is murdered.

Tyler is too young to make phone calls for help, but he understands that something is very wrong and is crying hysterically. The depiction of this murder is not graphic in the movie. However, there’s no doubt that it happened because of the gunshot that’s heard right after the gun in pointed directly at the mother. Mercedes are Tyler subsequently put in foster care and stay there for about a year.

“Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” gets fuzzy on the exact timeline details, but it’s around this time that Donna has a religious epiphany. She tells W.C. that “the Lord spoke to me” and told Donna to adopt children. Her reverend husband is skeptical and tells Donna they can’t really afford to have any more kids. He suggests that they adopt dogs instead. Donna says no. She also insists that they adopt children, not foster them.

The next thing that viewers see is Donna in a sparsely attended meeting consisting of potential adoptive parents. Her husband is not with her. The meeting is led by social worker Susan Ramsey (played by Elizabeth Mitchell), who shares some statistics about the children in Texas foster care. Susan says that about 70% of the children are there for poverty-related reasons, while the remaining 30% were abused by parents or guardians.

And so, in 1998, Donna and W.C. end up adopting 7-year-old Mercedes and 3-year-old Tyler. This adoption is depicted in a rather unrealistic way. The scene shows Susan driving Tyler and Mercedes to the Martin family home. She tells the kids that they will be living at this home and meeting their new family there for the first time.

The movie makes it look like the adoption paperwork was already completed before Mercedes and Tyler met the Martin family, and the adopted kids were dropped off at the Martin house for a better life. In reality, even in 1997, these foster kids would have to meet their adoptive parents first before the adoption can take place. There would be extensive interviews and inspections to make sure that the adoptive household would be the right fit for the kids.

When Mercedes and Tyler arrive at the Martin home for the first time, Mercedes is wary at first, while Tyler is sweet. Donna and W.C. welcome the kids with open arms and with unconditional love. LaDonna is also a good sister to Mercedes and Tyler, who also accept Prince.

However, because of unknown past traumas, Tyler is terrified of bathtub faucets being turned on and being in a bathtub of water. He goes into crying hysterics when Donna wants to give him a bath. This is another troubling aspect that is handled simplistically in the movie.

The movie makes it look like all Donna needs to do is hug and comfort Tyler to make him feel better. It’s never really shown in the movie if W.C. and Donna ever helped Tyler overcome his fear of bathtub faucets being turned on and his fear of being in a bathtub filled with water. Did they give Tyler sponge baths or make him take showers in the meantime? Don’t expect the movie to answer those questions.

It isn’t long before W.C.’s church sermons include preaching about the virtues of adopting needy kids who are “less wanted” because of their troubled backgrounds. And then, this crusade turns into the Martins convincing other members of their Possum Trot community to also adopt children. In total, 77 children were adopted by the Possum Trot community from 1998 to 2000.

Not long after Mercedes and Tyler are adopted, the Martin family adopts another child: 12-year-old Terri (played by Diaana Babnicova), who also comes from an abusive household. According to social worker Susan, Terri’s father abandoned Terri and Terri’s mother, who is not seen or named in the movie. Terri’s drug-addicted mother sold Terri into child prostitution. The boyfriend of Terri’s mother also raped Terri.

In order to cope with these traumas, Terri likes to pretend that she’s a cat whenever she feels like it. She walks on all fours and refuses to speak a human language but makes cat sounds instead. She gets teased about it by LaDonna and Mercedes.

W.C. quickly “cures” Terri’s cat identity problem by telling her that if she’s really a cat, then she has to eat cat food and sleep outside. It takes less than five minutes before Terri announces that she doesn’t want to be a cat anymore. W.C. reacts by giving a smug smile.

Later, Terri exhibits even deeper psychological problems that result in violence and the most melodramatic scenes in the film. Donna also has a temper that leads to her getting violent too. There’s other drama that happens inside and outside the Martin household because of these adoptions. The cast performances are competent and believable but not exceptionally outstanding.

“Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” doesn’t portray these adoptions as problem-free and the parents as perfect saints. However, the biggest failing of this movie is how children do not get professional help for their psychological problems. The movie makes it look like all children with these serious psychological problems just need to be hugged and shown love and patience, and everything will turn out okay. The reality that never gets properly addressed is that many of these children need ongoing psychiatric counseling or therapy too. Attending church services and being told “I love you” won’t be enough.

There’s also a lot more that goes into adoption than what’s depicted in this movie, which makes it look like adopting kids is as easy as adopting pets. There’s a scene later in the movie where Susan is called and asked if she has any more kids who need to be adopted. It’s depicted as if social worker Susan is the only person operating the human equivalent of the local stray animal shelter. It’s another example of how oversimplified the movie makes the adoption process look. In reality, there would be more social services workers involved in adopting children to several families in a community.

“Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” also avoids racial issues that would be realistically discussed in the predominantly African American community of Possum Trot. Black children who are raised in responsible and loving households are almost always taught certain realities about racism to prepare for this difficult fact of life. This movie would also have you believe that race doesn’t play a role in adoptions, when the reality is that race is a huge factor in where adopted children are placed. It’s just so conveniently happens that the neediest kids in this story are African American children who were adopted by African American parents.

On a basic level, “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” succeeds in its message that if people can afford to raise more children, then they should consider adopting the children who are most in need in their communities. Because many adopters often prefer to only adopt babies, “Sound of Hope” also sends an admirable message that older children shouldn’t be overlooked for adoption. However, this movie’s message is only interested in happy endings, not the harsh reality that some adoption stories are disastrous failures.

Angel Studios released “Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot” in U.S. cinemas on July 4, 2024.

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