Martin Papazian, who has that kind of face and demeanor that leads him to be cast as military men or cops (he’s appeared in films like Jarhead and on TV shows like 24) has written and directed his first feature, the touching drama Least Among Saints, which he also stars in. While the low-budget production puts this film visually only a step or two above a Lifetime drama, Papazian has written an emotional story that mostly succeeds.
Anthony is a Marine who returns to civilian life with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, which leads to alcoholism, suicidal feelings, a divorce and a restraining order from his wife May (Azura Skye). He spends most of his time getting drunk and violating the restraining order by drunkenly parking his pickup truck on his former lawn, but is spared from serious legal trouble by George (Charles S. Dutton), a police officer who can sympathize with Anthony’s emotional turmoil. He moves into a house next door to a drug abusing, irresponsible mother (Audrey Marie Anderson) and her shy and troubled son Wade (Tristan Lake Leabu, Superman Returns). On a night when Anthony tries to kill himself, Wade rushes over because his mother needs help. The ensuing events eventually lead to a bond forming between Wade and Anthony, and Anthony’s guilt over a traumatic experience he had in the war begins to assuage as he takes an increasingly active role in Wade’s life. The movie’s “villain” is Jolene, a social worker played by Laura San Giacomo. She’s one of those characters who is only the “villain” because she stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals even though she is entirely justified in all of her actions (though her snippy attitude was probably Papzian’s way of making the audience ignore that she is usually in the right).
There are many, many films about a grownup who is at the end of his or her rope finding a reason to live again through a bond with a child — heck, only a few months ago I reviewed one starring Morgan Freeman, The Magic of Belle Isle. What Least Among Saints thankfully does differently to set it apart is that Papazian has made Anthony a deeply flawed character — almost every decision he makes in the film is the wrong one even if he feels he is doing what’s right. A scene in which Anthony holds back Wade’s teacher so Wade can beat up a much-bigger bully is practically right out of a “bad adult” comedy like Big Daddy or Role Models, but this isn’t a comedy so it demonstrates how disconnected Anthony is from the world he lives in. By far the strongest aspect of the film is Papazian’s acting as Anthony, and he’s done a wonderful job of directing himself in a powerful role.
Least Among Saints is Papazian’s first film as a writer or a director, and it’s certainly a solid first effort on both fronts. Yes, he doesn’t go for any fancy shots and sticks to straight-on TV movie-style shooting and editing and the story wraps up a little too neatly than it would in real life, but this is a straightforward story so a straightforward narrative style doesn’t hurt the presentation. Still, the end of the film skips over way too many loose ends with a sequence that is so “too good to be true” I truly expected an abrupt cut to a scene of Anthony waking up from a dream. As writer/director/star, I’m sure it was probably uncomfortable for Papazian to give the film a less than crowd-pleasing ending, but the easy ending here isn’t the right one and instead of making a strong statement it takes a shortcut. In a film that’s almost entirely about consequences, Papazian cops out on the biggest ones.
Hopefully this will be a lesson that sticks with Papazian as he makes future films. Even if this movie is really low budget (Papazian actually raised some of the funding on Kickstarter), it’s still a good start to a potential great career behind the camera. But while this is an effective film low-budget, rookie, or otherwise, it could’ve hit a lot harder if only Papazian took a little more risk with it.
Rating: While a moving drama, it never goes beyond “solid” to “strong” because it sticks to what’s safe (6/10).
Least Among Saints has a limited release rollout beginning October 12. For theaters, please check here.