There are two films at war in “Least Amongst Saints,” and neither is very compelling. The first is a faith-forward feature about redemptive spirits, where Anthony (writer/director Martin Papazian) attempts to pull himself out of a PTSD funk fueled by alcohol and bad decisions upon his return from the Middle East. The soft-gauze photography, flat storytelling and overt moralizing suggests a product straight from the Bible Belt, and even the soundtrack, both pop and orchestral, leans towards the churchy.
The second and far more appealing film is a foul-mouthed R-rated story of a troublemaking alcoholic who takes on a bit more responsibility than he should, and the no-nonsense social worker tasked with keeping this idiot out of harm’s way. Anthony bounces back and forth between these two films to the point where you sort of lose track as to who he’s supposed to be. Though it seems the title provides a hint.
Anthony’s not back home for long before he’s greeted with divorce papers, likely the result of several boozy attempts to erase memories of war. Through a drunken haze, he meets an attractive single neighbor and her preteen son, though it’s another portrait of the schizoid nature of this film -- Anthony’s morality is cited as the reason he won’t take her to bed after chivalrously defending her honor against a male predator. Which makes little sense coming after a moment where he’s so borderline blackout drunk that he steals an eighteen pack of beer from the local market and tosses it to a couple of high schoolers. Not necessarily that there is moral equivalency at play, but more likely that it takes a lot to be a karate-chopping white knight after you just drunkenly tripped over your own feet on the way out of the local mini-mart.
Anthony soon meets the boy next door, troubled cutter Wade (Tristan Lake Leabu), and not long after their first meeting, his junkie mother ODs her way into the afterlife, leaving Anthony and Wade alone in the hospital waiting room, in the care of a braindead patient. Knowing that only foster care lies ahead, Wade flees, forcing Anthony to side with the child instead of the bureaucracy. In this case, the film makes the wise decision of humanizing the social worker in question, played by a game Laura San Giacomo. The veteran actress captures a mixture of nine-to-five workday exasperation and genuine care, lacing her passion for her job with a cynicism bred from the unpleasant intricacies of what she does. In Wade she sees dozens of orphaned boys, but she also sees someone in Anthony who wants to help, so her pursuit of the two is laced with regret that she’ll be further breaking the heart of a boy who has just lost his mother. The guilty pleasure side of your brain will want to see this character transported into a similar role in a action chase movie along the lines of “Midnight Run.”
While she holds off the dogs, Anthony clumsily makes Wade a promise that they’re going to attempt to find Wade’s estranged father. The fact that Wade clutches a faded photo of a motel as the only evidence of his whereabouts should give you a hint as to what Anthony expects, but against his better judgment, he allows the boy to accompany him on a series of increasingly contrived adventures, ones that place both of them in unnecessary danger and further complicate the story with cheap obstacles for our characters to overcome. Matters like this are underlined by a script featuring characters spouting such on-the-nose remarks like when someone addresses Anthony’s post-war suffering by acknowledging, “You never came back.” Some of this is given dignity from Charles S. Dutton as a local defender of Anthony’s very public drunken recklessness, but most of it is the sort of deadening boilerplate melodrama that Oliver Reed couldn’t resuscitate, never mind the collection of soap-ready supporting players that decorate the periphery of this film.
What’s more, “Least Amongst Saints” (edited and scored, weirdly, like an episode of “Strike Back”) takes dramatic shortcuts at the moments where the story is about to almost feel real. Anthony’s alcoholism and post-war trauma feel lived-in, and his interactions with fed-up locals who appreciate his sacrifice but can’t cope with his obnoxiousness ring of a certain truth. But then there’s the punishing circuitous route the film takes in order to get a gun in Wade’s hands, where you can see the wheels turning to make this semi-plausible, as if each sequence were dreamed up on its own before the characters and story were devised in order to accommodate such drama. At that point, you’re not making a movie, you’re playing hop-scotch. [C]