Set in 1990s Eastern Iowa in a fictional Palmersville near the Amish community of Kalona. The mystery is whether barn fires happening among the Amish are a hate crime by outsiders.
The movie opens with a wedding ceremony that teaches the viewer how Amish carry out this rite. Even the singing the authentic if a bit too fast (really). However, at the end of the celebration it's discovered the host's barn is on fire, quickly followed by barn fires at two nearby Amish farms. This leads Sheriff Garrison to suspect a hate crime, so he asks for help from the FBI. Sally Russell has a bit of an issue with her boyfriend, before she heads from Chicago to Iowa.
The Sheriff gives Sally a crash course on the Amish and the separateness of their culture. Sally meets the family where the first fire occurred, which includes the widow Annie Beiler, her daughter, Rachel, and son, John. Sally and Annie hit it off, as Annie is quite outgoing and positive in her approach to life. One interesting comment by Annie is that the Amish have already forgiven the arsonist. This was a full decade before the Nickel Mines school shooting that brought the Amish approach to forgiveness to international attention.
A variety of suspects surface as the story unfolds, including a couple of town hooligans who are angry with John Beiler because of his friendship with Nancy, the girlfriend of George, one of the hoods. (John is in his Rumspringa years, which is explained by Annie to Sally). Another suspect is a real estate agent who approaches all the victims of barn fires with offers to buy land. The third suspect is Jacob Hostetler, a cantankerous Amish man who is being shunned by the Amish district because he has a curved roof on his barn instead of a pointed roof. Jacob's son, Sam, was the boyfriend of Rachel Beiler, but he is also shunned because he eats at the same table with his father.
Sally forms a close relationship with Annie Beiler, and after another fire, spends some time living with Annie and her family. So she learns to quilt and other charming things.
On the day of the barnraising to replace Annie's barn, Rachel has a second confrontation with Jacob Hostetler. After a harsh exchange, Samuel Hostetler confesses to setting the fires because of his anger over losing Rachel. Samuel goes to the barnraising and seeks forgiveness from Bishop Levi Lapp (Wesley Addy), which is extended.
Many facets of the film are admirable. The producers worked hard to get costume and appearance right--consulting with Mennonites who live near the Iowa Amish (who declined to cooperate with the filming). Some things still were not right -- some of the Amish beards were too trimmed, and Samuel Hostetler's hair looked more like a hippie than a Amish teenager. Annie Beiler was too saccharine in her personality for my taste.
And the shunning. Movies about the Amish always make much ado about shunning and usually get it wrong. It's not clear to me that Samuel Hostetler was baptized. If he was not baptized, he could not be shunned. You can't shun people who have not made an adult decision to commit to the community through baptism. And it's not clear to me that a barn roof is a shunning offence. There are degrees of Amish discipline. It is also possible to be "set back" from taking communion at church. It's a milder form of discipline that allows you to still be part of the community.
A plot issue is why Samuel would have set the first three fires before Rachel finally told him she could no longer see him.
Nonetheless, this was an entertaining film that did better than most on Amish themes.