Tulsa

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Tulsa Movie Poster Image
Tear-jerking faith-based drama centers on substance abuse.
  • PG-13
  • 2020
  • 119 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Promotes faith, transformation, redemption, empathy. Also shows how people with substance dependencies can turn their lives around -- and how children can have a powerful impact on adults. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tulsa is incredibly precocious, devout, helpful. She wants Tommy to get his life together, stop abusing substances, read the Bible, dedicate his life to God. She challenges him to be a father to her and to be a better man. Tommy shows how redemption is possible for anyone, no matter how lost or alone they are. Lead characters are mostly White, but three prominent supporting characters are Black.

Violence

A woman is arrested for abusing her foster children. In flashback, a pregnant woman with mental health issues dies via suicide by swallowing a lot of pills and walking into water, drowning. In an upsetting scene, Tommy holds a gun, seems about to shoot himself but ultimately has a change of heart. A character gets hit by a bus while crossing a street, ends up taken to hospital. Another character gets into a brawl with several men. A character gets sicker and sicker and eventually dies (off-camera). Tommy threatens Tulsa's mean classmates.

Sex

Tommy gets closer to Jaylene throughout the movie; they share one kiss. Tulsa cheers on their potential relationship. In flashback, Tommy has a serious live-in girlfriend who announces she's pregnant. Tulsa makes a comment that her mom thought "dancing leads to fornication." Tommy's friend and employee has a poster of a scantily clad woman in his work area.

Language

One use of "hell," plus "butt," "that's bull," and a few uses of "brat."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Tommy is dependent on substances. He smokes cigarettes, abuses prescription meds, drinks heavily until Tulsa throws out all the liquor in his house. He still manages to drink and get high after that.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tulsa is a faith-based drama about Tommy (Scott Pryor, who also wrote and directed), a single mechanic with substance dependencies who fosters Tulsa (Livi Birch), a devoutly Christian 9-year-old orphan who believes he's her biological father. Expect lots of drinking, smoking, and prescription drug use, all by adults. There are also references to physical and emotional abuse in the foster system when Tulsa talks about where she's lived since her mother died. In one scene, a fistfight breaks out and leads to a full-on brawl before the police break up the altercation. Some viewers will balk at the depiction of social services/medical personnel allowing a uniquely unqualified man to care for a little girl. Despite the fact that it centers on a young child, the movie's mature themes, frequent substance use/abuse, and tragic events make it inappropriate for younger viewers. Christian families are most likely to appreciate the movie's religious messages about trusting Jesus and reading the Bible, and about how faith can transform people's lives.

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What's the story?

TULSA is a faith-based film about a 9-year-old orphan named Tulsa (Livi Birch), who needs an emergency placement after her foster mother is arrested. The precocious girl tells the social worker, Jaylene (Nicole Marie Johnson), that she has a photo of her dead mother with a man whom she believes is her father. It turns out that Jaylene is acquainted with the man, Tommy Colston (Scott Pryor). Tommy, a hardworking -- and hard-drinking -- former Marine who owns his own auto and motorcycle mechanic shop, isn't interested in fostering Tulsa, particularly when he finds out she's a devout Christian who openly evangelizes to him. But Tulsa wins him over, and he agrees -- for as long as it takes to prove whether he's her father. Soon, Tulsa urges Tommy to come with her to church and to stop drinking, smoking, and taking pills (she even throws out his entire liquor cabinet and cigarette stash while he naps). As the weeks roll by, the unlikely duo's father-daughter bond is tested but gets stronger, forcing Tommy to become a better man. 

Is it any good?

Although it's usually fun to watch an alpha male's heart soften thanks to a precocious child, this Christian drama requires serious suspension of disbelief and suffers from stilted performances. The filmmakers mean well, of course, and the final act is authentically poignant, but for most of the movie, Tulsa comes off as a confused -- and confusing -- story. It's not a typical feel-good comedy with an unlikely adult-and-kid duo, and it's ludicrous to think that social workers would entrust a man like Tommy with the care of a girl who has yet to be verified as his daughter. Tommy's substance dependency is also depicted in an unrealistic manner, and the unfunny way in which he threatens the "mean girls" at Tulsa's school falls completely flat. Eventually there are a few more believable elements, but a lot of characters -- social workers, nurses, doctors, school officials -- act in ways contrary to what audiences would expect, given the urgent circumstances.

Another issue with the dramedy is that Tulsa herself is initially unlikable -- she's dictatorial and unkind to Tommy -- but audiences won't be able to fault her for wanting Tommy to shape up, stop drinking, and start acting like a father. Young Birch isn't at fault; she's one of the better actors in the movie, with the preacher, played by Cameron Arnett, being another standout. The rest, particularly Pryor and Johnson, don't adequately convey the emotional range necessary to connect audiences to the screenplay. Faith-based communities looking for another sentimental story specifically about the need for religious transformation may be more forgiving, but those simply looking for entertainment will be disappointed at Tulsa's amateurish acting and inauthentic plot points. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the amount of drinking, smoking, and drug use in Tulsa. Do you think the substance use is vital to the story? What consequences are there for using? How do the characters change their habits?

  • Do you have to be a Christian to enjoy this movie? Who's the target audience for faith-based films? Do they aim to entertain existing believers, to evangelize to secular audiences, or something else?

  • In addition to the transformational power of faith, what are the movie's other positive messages? How can audiences apply those messages in their daily lives?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories about faith

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