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motw logo 1-35SAINT JUDY is director Sean Hanish’s fact-based drama about immigration attorney Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), whose tenacity, empathy, and intelligence led her to successfully argue a case that changed U.S. asylum law in a way that literally saved women’s lives. Earnest and timely, it’s a film that will fuel the fire of activism in viewers’ hearts — as well as engender respect for Judy and her accomplishments.

In the 1980s, divorced single mom Judy moves herself and her son, Alex (Gabriel Bateman) to Los Angeles, partly to be closer to his dad/her ex, Matthew (Peter Krause). But Judy quickly becomes dedicated to helping Central American refugees navigate the United States’ complex immigration process. She and Alex become part of a supportive community, but, due to her passion, her work always comes first — sometimes to Alex’s frustration and chagrin.

This is especially true when Judy takes on the challenging case of Asefa (Leem Lubany), an Afghan woman who fled Taliban persecution after opening a girls’ school. Both Asefa and Judy know that if Asefa returns to Afghanistan, her life will be in danger — but U.S. law doesn’t recognize women as a protected class when it comes to seeking asylum. Daunting as it may seem, Judy sets out to convince the system otherwise.

Monaghan is compelling in the title role; she makes it clear that Judy’s dedication comes from a place of compassion and idealism — she truly feels called to help the people who need her. And Lubany is strong as a woman whose only crime was to stand up for girls’ right to education. The supporting cast also includes Alfre Woodard as a sympathetic but by-the-book judge and Common as a government lawyer whose loyalties may be more flexible than Judy first thinks. Hanish leads them all in telling a story that, while set several decades ago, feels like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Marina Antunes Saint Judy brings to the big screen the real-life story of immigration lawyer Judy Wood, a woman who gave up everything to help others. Grounded by an engaging performance from Michelle Monaghan, Saint Judy isn’t just the story of one woman’s sacrifice but a reminder that there are still good people struggling to help those who don’t have a voice.

Loren King There’s an urgency and a poignancy to the timing of this fact-based drama. With the current president and his base bent on creating border walls, Saint Judy is the eye-opening story of Los Angeles lawyer Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan) and her dogged efforts on behalf of immigrants, especially women, seeking political asylum in the US due to the threat of violence and murder in the patriarchal countries they fled. Read full review.

Susan Wloszczyna: Saint Judy is a true-life tale of a female crusader, a legal eagle named Judy Wood who is responsible for a landmark case that strives to protect female immigrants who seek asylum in the U.S. to avoid persecution and possible death in their homelands. While we have seen this sort of high-minded advocate before, most recently in On the Basis of Sex and in another era in Erin Brockovich, this one has a couple things extra going for it. First is the presence of Michelle Monaghan, a truly under-rated actress who somehow avoids turning her Judy into a do-gooder bore. But even more so, the movie could not be timelier in counter-acting the demonization of those looking for a safe haven and a better life in the United States of America. Read full review.

Marilyn Ferdinand: There seems to be a formula developing for how to tell the stories of courageous, real women fighting for justice—quickly sketch the character’s intelligence and skill, put her in a situation in which sexism and the system work to thwart her, show her winning a decisive victory, and then cut to the real woman on whom the story is based. Most recently, we saw this in the 2018 film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex, and now we have it with Saint Judy, which chronicles the struggles and triumphs of immigration attorney Judy Wood, who rewrote the rules for granting women asylum in the United States. The story of her struggle to show that her client, an Afghani national named Asefa Ashwari (Leem Lubany), deserved asylum even though she was not from a protected class under U.S. law, is fascinating and an object lesson in the ways women have been changing the world, persistently and without acclaim, for decades. While the script is bare-bones with regard to anything that might flesh Wood or the characters in her orbit out as people, the brilliant Michelle Monaghan infuses Wood with so much emotional honesty and good will that it is impossible not to be moved and rewarded by her performance. Another important story from the lives of women emerges with Saint Judy, and that’s worth a look.

MaryAnn Johanson There are so many real women doing important work in the real world, and we hear about so little of it, certainly compared to how cinema is ready to leap to celebrate even the smallest deeds of men. And Judy Wood’s achievement — changing asylum law for women in the US! — is huge, and yet this is the first I was aware of it. So while *Saint Judy* may be pretty conventional and bit obvious with its occasional speechifying, it’s great to see a movie like this one. (Michelle Monaghan is terrific, too. She doesn’t work enough. So happy to see her get the chance to tackle a meaty lead role.) Could be it’s even a good thing that the beats of Wood’s story are familiar: it underscores that women’s stories are made of the same feel-good, audience-pleasing stuff as men’s, and that there’s no reason we shouldn’t be seeing lots more like this.

Sheila Roberts
“Saint Judy,” Sean Hanish’s engrossing biopic about L.A. immigration attorney Judy Wood, is superbly directed from a well written screenplay by Dmitry Portnoy and features a powerful performance by Michelle Monaghan in the title role. Monaghan is surrounded by a strong ensemble supporting cast that includes Leem Lubany, Alfred Molina (who also executive produces), Common, and Alfre Woodard. One of Wood’s most impactful career achievements was convincing the judges of the 9th Circuit Court to unanimously grant asylum to her courageous client, Asefa Ashwari, by arguing that Ashwari was not persecuted randomly for being a woman, but targeted specifically for what she stood for. Wood’s aggressive legal strategy and tenacious commitment to human rights in this landmark case led to the U.S. recognizing political activity on behalf of women as protected by the Law of Asylum. Richard Wong’s cinematic eye, Anita Brandt Burgoyne’s economical editing, and composer James T. Sale’s riveting score complement the compelling narrative.

Kristen Page Kirby While truth-based Saint Judy might have worked better as a documentary — it would be hard to imagine anyone coming up with such a compelling story out of thin air — it’s still a hard look at our immigration system’s blindness to the plight of many women who are victims of patriarchal countries who, if not by law then by their very nature, are so pathologically harmful to women that they have no choice but to flee. As the woman at the center of the movie’s immigration battle, Leem Lubany gives a performance of note — one can only help this movie will help her achieve the recognition her talent deserves.

Nell Minow: Leem Lubany shines as Asefa, a refugee whose story is not told until she is assigned to a new lawyer, Judy Wood, played by Michelle Monaghan. Wood’s skill as a lawyer and her empathy as a woman, combined with Asefa’s courage and determination lead to a ground-breaking court decision that helps women throughout the world. This film is itself an important piece of advocacy for women everywhere, and for empathy, too.

Jennifer Merin Saint Judy is a well made truth-based biopic about Judy Wood, a highly principled, marvelously smart, steadfastly tenacious and utterly charming attorney who single-handedly changed immigration laws to protect and save women’s lives. Respect! Starring Michelle Monaghan in the title role, with superb support from an ensemble cast that includes Leem Lubany, Alfre Woodard, Alfred Molina and Common, the film is timely, indeed. Saint Judy is a film that fans the flames of feminist activism.

Liz Whittemore Saint Judy‘s release comes at the perfect time in America’s history. Based on the true story of a very green immigration lawyer taking the system to task, it is the film we all need to see right now. In the midst of today’s manufactured crisis based on ego and not facts, Saint Judy delves into the complexities of our immigration system in 2003 and how truly broken it has always been. The film has an Erin Brockovich feel to it minus the edgier sarcasm. Its heart lies in the truth of the story and the actors’ captivating performances. Alfred Molina plays Judy’s jaded boss with a comfort that is loathsome, frustrating, and brilliant all at once. Leem Lubany as Asefa is simply moving. Michelle Monaghan plays Judy Wood with a powerful subtly that feels just right. The honest passion of this real-life hero is portrayed elegantly and without a hint of “acting”. The film has a smooth balance of up and down in its emotional journey and ultimately pays off in every way. Saint Judy is not only entertaining but a history lesson designed for this precise moment in our country’s evolution.

Sandie Angulo Chen Saint Judy is a topical docudrama based on the true story of Los Angeles immigration attorney Judy Wood. Michelle Monaghan gives a powerful performance as the passionate lawyer who isn’t swayed by her jaded boss (Alfred Molina) to settle deportation orders and move on to the next case. Wood sees the humanity behind each of her cases, particularly Asefa (Leem Lubany) a young woman from Afghanistan seeking asylum, because the Taliban had targeted her for educating girls and young women. Wood’s determination isn’t without personal cost, but she sees it as her duty to help Asefa and other immigrants. In today’s divisive political climate, a movie like Saint Judy is a reminder to see undocumented immigrants as fellow human beings with complicated backstories.

Cate Marquis Director Sean Hanish serves up a fine biopic of inspiring immigration attorney Judy Wood, whose determined and resourceful service to immigrants, often for little or no pay, has earned her the nickname Saint Judy. Michelle Monaghan plays Wood, in this film that focuses on the attorney in her earliest days as an immigration advocate as she works on a particularly significant case. The fine cast also includes Alfred Molina as a less-idealistic immigration lawyer, Alfre Woodard as an immigration judge, and Common as an attorney for the state in the immigration court. The case at the film’s center concerns a young Afghan woman, Asefa Ashwari (Leem Lubany), a teacher who fled her country after she was persecuted by the Taliban for standing up for girls’ education. The drama uses that immigration case to make feminist points but also to take us inside immigration courts, to illustrate how they differ from criminal ones. Saint Judy is an inspiring and informative film about a heroic lawyer who deserves to be better known but also an intriguing glimpse behind the curtain of immigration courts. It couldn’t be more timely.


Title: Saint Judy

Directors: Sean Hanish

Release Date: March 1, 2019

Running Time: 106 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Dmitry Portnoy

Distribution Company: Forefront Media Group


Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).