America, as all of us know, is living through a savagely tough time. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria did considerable damage to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. In recent days, fires have ravaged Northern California.
So, maybe it's a good time to focus on a true story, a sweet story, that embraces the beauty of the human spirit and dares you to feel ennobled by the power of human beings to make a difference.
"I'm lucky to get to work in this business," says actor Greg Kinnear, battling traffic on an L.A. freeway days before the Friday opening of the movie in which he stars, Same Kind of Different As Me.
Kinnear, 54, plays the man behind the story, Dallas' own Ron Hall, 72, who co-wrote the 2006 book that has sold more than a million copies and is now a Hollywood film, starring Kinnear, Djimon Hounsou and Oscar winners Renée Zellweger and Jon Voight.
"I feel deeply appreciative of the opportunity to tell stories," Kinnear says, "particularly during a very, very tough week. It's been a tough few months, politically and in terms of natural disasters. There's so much anger, so much hostility. You see these horrible things in the news, including our own business," a reference to the scandal surrounding film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
All the more reason, Kinnear says, to celebrate a movie that celebrates the best in life.
"I feel lucky," says Kinnear, who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor in the 1997 classic, As Good As It Gets, playing opposite Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, "to tell stories that are hopeful, that have the power to make people feel a little bit better."
Zellweger plays Hall's wife, Debbie, who died of cancer in 2000. She made a sea change in her husband's life and became a tireless force of hope in the lives of the homeless in Fort Worth. Debbie dreamed one night of meeting a man who had the power to change her life, and her husband's, and reshape the city in which they lived. He turned out to be a homeless ex-convict named Denver Moore, played in the film by Hounsou. Moore moved in with Hall, and dramatically changed Hall's life. Moore died in 2012.
Taking on the role of a rare and special character like Debbie involved its own dramatic complexity. In 1988, a chastened Hall told his wife that he had cheated on her, a sin Debbie forgave. In return, he pledged to do anything she asked him to. She agreed to never again mention his infidelity, and, Hall says, she was true to her word.
Zellweger, 48, spoke of feeling privileged to share conversations with Hall about his own life-changing moment.
"I'm very grateful that Ron was there and that he was very generous with any questions that we had about these very personal moments in his life," Zellweger says, "very sensitive issues that we had to address in order to better understand who Debbie was."
Hall's wife showed compassion, the actress says, "in everything she did. When I talked with Ron, he said he was so humbled by her taking responsibility for her part in the breakdown of their marriage, which led to his poor decisions.
"The forgiveness that she gave him was so humbling. How do you not do anything that your wife asks of you at that point? I'm a pretty conventional person with respect to relationships ... Things don't have to be perfect. They have to be real. And as long as you know the truth about a person, I think it actually enriches your life experience together."
Twice nominated for Oscars, for best supporting actor in Blood Diamond and In America, Hounsou, 53, plays the life force known as Denver Moore, who, true to Debbie's dream, changes her life and Ron's. Hounsou has more than a casual understanding of the part. There was a time in his life when he was homeless.
"That happened way before I came to America," he says. "It happened in France, right after my schooling. I found myself on the streets of Paris, trying to become a man."
His experience, he says, was "nothing compared to Denver's life and his story, which was truly a dream killer."
As Hounsou says, so many Americans are "one paycheck away" from homelessness, as thousands have found out in the wake of hurricanes and fires. The point that Ron and Debbie Hall and Denver Moore drove home, he says, is that the homeless are real human beings who are not invisible.
By the time Moore died, "he and I had become closer than brothers," Hall says. "When he moved in with me, he had nothing. But he gave me everything." Hall says he's thrilled with the film, noting that an AMC Theatres board member told him after a preview screening that if Hounsou is not nominated for an Oscar, "there is no heart in Hollywood."
Hounsou marvels at the example of Debbie and Ron Hall, who embody one of his favorite quotes from Horace Mann, an education reformer and abolitionist who died in 1859.
"Be ashamed to die," Mann said, "until you have won some victory for humanity."