Forgiving Johnny – HollyShorts Film Festival 2023 – Film Review

Johnny, who suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and its associated intellectual challenges, may be the eponymous subject of the short film Forgiving Johnny but the film focuses on the various technological options that may be available to offer mitigation to Johnny after he is accused of committing a crime on a family member. It is an unusual, but effective, approach to a documentary that highlights the systemic failures towards individuals with mental health diagnoses.

Noah Cox is the LA County Public Defender simultaneously acting as the narrator navigating through the procedural elements of Johnny’s case and describing the pre-trial events. Forgiving Johnny does not sensationalise nor exaggerate the events which are presented in a rather matter of fact manner, which is a tone reflecting the seemingly unexciting nature of some of the litigation evidence based processes. However, defence attorney Noah, via the assistance of the LA County’s Rapid Diversion Program and the consultancy firm Publicis Sapient, seeks to create court reform and efficiencies in case management through digitisation.

Noah Cox in Forgiving Johnny
Noah Cox in Forgiving Johnny

Thus, Forgiving Johnny is not a film querying Johnny’s innocence or guilt, or the burden of proof. Instead, the film is consistent in showcasing aspects of diversion treatment available in Los Angeles to provide fair alternatives to incarceration for impacted defendants. The Rapid Diversion Program was initiated in LA in 2019 as a pre-plea programme targeting a just approach for individuals suffering from mental health limitations. In Johnny’s case, the prison sentence would have been severe with the potential for Johnny to serve 20 years incarceration for an alleged assault. However, the treatment process does involve producing sufficient medical evidence to undertake this alternative process heralded as a way to reduce court backlogs within LA and increase efficiencies. Forgiving Johnny’s focus remains on unveiling the full extent of this revolutionary method to reduce the administrative medical evidence burden.

Therefore, Forgiving Johnny illustrates the differences to litigators should such process be widely adopted with reams of paper litigation bundles reduced. The technological advances may therefore be perceived to be helpful in cases such as Johnny’s.

Noah Cox in Forgiving Johnny
Noah Cox in Forgiving Johnny

Still, the film also focuses on the impact to the victim and the effect of Johnny’s actions and the case itself on his family, which is undoubtedly polarising and heartbreaking. The emotional anguish pervades the film despite director Ben Proudfoot’s initial decision to maintain a distance from the human subjects in Johnny’s case. Instead, the film permits the development of an arc for public defender Noah thereby returning to that opening hook. Noah’s past childhood re-surfaces which enables more insight to his personality and remains a riveting watch. Proudfoot has provided a creative approach within Forgiving Johnny with those insights to Noah’s background. Unfortunately, this creative decision results in Johnny becoming a secondary character within his own storyline.

There is no doubt that Forgiving Johnny will make inroads within the criminal justice system not least due to its ability to highlight reform and the technological option available. Proudfoot’s involvement in these projects with Publicis, who focus on diversity and inclusion, seems to be a personal project but will be beneficial to many in need, similar to Johnny. Still, LA county is noted to have a disproportionately high number of inmates, which may greatly impact under-represented communities. Indeed, if technology can be seen as a force of good in these instances, films such as Forgiving Johnny may be pivotal in improving archaic justice systems within other US states. LA may be the frontrunner but thus film may also prove to be instrumental in challenging future inequity within the accepted practices, which undoubtedly is an overall societal benefit.

Forgiving Johnny is a riveting, compelling film that inspires change to the status quo for the justice system. There is that hopeful voice emanating Forgiving Johnny thereby illustrating that individual circumstances outside of the norm can be taken into account within LA Court proceedings. Unusually, the film also places an emphasis on the passions and life of its defender, outside of the confines of the litigation process. There is no doubt that Forgiving Johnny is also a unique example of film being used as a powerful medium in such quest given director Proudfoot is in direct partnership with Publicis and Impact Films too. Forgiving Johnny, despite its bleak subject matter, also illustrates the ability of film to transcend, be that voice for communities essentially and be that instrument for change.

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