NOTE: This film is currently open in Dallas, TX, while the Kansas City release was pushed back to an undetermined date.
It takes the accidental death of a dog in order to reach a moment of clarity for a broken down war veteran in Least Among Saints. It was at that moment that I checked out of the movie, a seemingly cheap plot device in order to spur along the closure that is needed for this movie to feel complete and whole. The story of the film, which is directed, written, and stars Martin Papazian, is not a new concept. The idea of a broken individual finding redemption through tragedy and the help he gives to a boy who shares a similar life experience. The man/child relationship and bonding theme is done in other movies like I Am Sam, Big Daddy or The Boys Are Back, this attempt by Papazian is melodramatic and a bit too brooding for its own good.
The story follows Gulf War II veteran Anthony (Martin Papazian) who returns from war a little messed up, facing divorce papers and the only comfort of a dog and the bottom of a bottle. He’s depressed, suicidal and a hollow man, but he intervenes when the neighbors dispute and ends up making a tenuous connection with a single mother (A.J. Cook) and her son Wade (Tristan Lake Leabu). After the tragic overdose of Wade’s mother, Anthony takes on the role of caregiver for Wade, becoming that absent father figure and mentor that he needed all along. Along their tumultuous journey, both realize that their broken lives somehow fit one another’s needs. They learn to heal with each other, mainly over this revelation that Anthony has when his dog is accidentally shot.
As a dog lover and owner, that last part sticks with me to no end.
Least Among Saints tries very hard to be an honestly touching film about the redemption of those that are troubled and looking for the light. We know this fact because of Papazian’s hammering of this theme at every turn. His directing and writing isn’t the sharpest or best part of the movie, opting for intimate close-up shots and this very blunt line delivery that doesn’t throw a lot of emotional weight behind the characters’ intentions. It feels stiff and over-produced, with emotional connections having to come from elsewhere in the movie as the constant droning of the despair and anguish both the main characters have becomes a nuisance.
In spite of the directing and writing shortcomings, Papazian manages to deliver a solid performance, a stoic, fractured individual who says more when he doesn’t say anything at all. Small contained outbursts of emotion cap off critical scenes that makes the first half of the movie worth watching. That is until this despair becomes unbearable in the second half. Leabu turns in a memorable performance as Wade, with a complex portrayal of a kid with no solid footing in life. His introduction to the movie is timid and reserved, but his emotional swings in the movie catch you off guard as he is confused, uncertain of what he wants or needs. His greenish acting experience shows through when he can’t carry the larger, complicated scenes.
There are two other characters that fill in the gaps of story for both Wade and Anthony. Laura San Giacomo portrays the social worker Jolene, who honestly brings a lot more depth to her character with her concerned and vocal support of Wade finding the right environment to live and grow in. Last is Charles S. Dutton as the sympathetic police chief who is more of a narrator and preacher to the audience. His role is more ancillary in terms of reminding the audience that time will heal all wounds and providing the support for the audience to sympathize with Anthony despite the constant loom of woe he has.
It is a predictable movie with a clear message of two wrongs can make a right. The audience is supposed to take everything at face value, not realizing that Wade’s mother died and during the span of that one day, Anthony teaches him to shoot a gun, stand up to a bully and go on a road trip that changes their lives. All of this happens just immediately after the mom is declared dead and it’s far more coincidental and convenient for my tastes. Every father-son bonding moment is experienced in less than 24 hours and it feels fleeting and not overly important. Papazian just crams in these life lessons and moments, rushing them quickly past the audience to that moment where it all makes sense to Anthony. That moment where the dog is accidentally killed and it happens, it just happens for no reason and that is life.
The acting in the movie isn’t framed very well with the overly melodramatic script, thus limiting the emotional punch the movie needed in order to make it truly compelling. I found the plot devices, mainly the flashbacks and dog death, to be too predictable a turning point in the movie, telegraphing the final moments of the movie that is packaged nicely with a big sappy bow on top. It’s a renter for sure if you are into the two downtrodden characters finding solace in one another’s complicated lives. Aside from that, I am off to hug my dog.
I give Least Among Saints 2 German Shepherds out of 5.
by Nick Guzman