Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan) and her young son Alex drive to California to start a new life. He’ll get to live near and have more time with his dad, and she’ll get to restart her career as an immigration lawyer. Not exactly what she had planned, but not exactly a choice, either.
She was a very successful public defender in her previous life, but it turns out you don’t need a lot of qualifications to be an immigration attorney because the clients are in no position to complain. They get what they get. Lucky for them, Judy Wood is a tireless crusader.
But she still has the capacity to be shocked by what she finds: people who have been held in custody for months or years, drugged for their own “protection,” the burden of proof on the detainees because, since they are not accused of crimes, they do not enjoy the protections afforded the common criminal. They are guilty until proven innocent – and with overworked, underpaid, unqualified lawyers, that’s a pretty dodgy concept.
Director Sean Hanish makes no bones about sainting his subject – it’s right there in the title. So basically we get to just sit back and watch this woman (based on a real-life woman) work up a steam of righteous anger all the way to making actual changes in the American law of asylum to actually save women’s lives.
Lawyers are often depicted as sleazy scumbags in Hollywood, and there are enough real-life counterparts that it’s hard to really object. But for every piece of shit in The Laundromat, there’s also a warrior in Just Mercy. Mercenary lawyers give everyone a bad name, but changes in law come from lawyers who care and are exceptional in their work. I don’t know Judy Wood but I bet she’s not actually a saint. Good news: you don’t have to be a saint to make a difference. Judy did it through hard work, compassion, and belief. And though I think this movie is needlessly formulaic and one-sided, if it serves to inspire a young woman to go to law school and believe that she too can be the change she wants to see in the system, then that’s a great thing.