Director: Martin Papazian
Runtime: 107 minutes
That-guy actor Martin Papazian goes for dramatic gravitas in his directorial debut Least Among Saints and finds more success than not in the process. Wanting to tackle a tale about two lost souls helping each other understand their place in the world, it seemed only natural for the first-time screenwriter to dig back into his past as well as bring to life tales heard at present. Creating his central dynamic with a young boy and the haunted man willing to ensure his well being in the face of crippling tragedy, the film’s allusions towards father and son also provided the perfect vehicle to share with the director’s own television producer dad Robert and his long time partner James G. Hirsch. Often feeling a bit made-for-TV as a result, its subject matter’s emotional resonance raises it above such easy comparisons.
Possessed by war-torn tales of veterans met on the set of Jarhead and beyond, Papazian also reached back to the memory of a young boy he befriended years ago who was caught up in a mother’s drug addiction. Seeing the need for companionship and a touch of humanity in both such creatures, it isn’t hard to see why he’d write them in adjacent houses to eventually meet and become each other’s savior. Firmly saddled with chips on their shoulders, a quest for redemption unites this volatile drunkard and orphan capable of turning their rage into the emotional fragility necessary to open up and reconcile the pain of guilty consciences. One is imprisoned by the unforgivable deeds committed at war while the other drowns in the misguided belief he has only himself to blame for his tragic life.
It’s at the end of their ropes that they find each other trapped inside the violence our world has yet to eradicate. Anthony (Papazian) is six months into an alcoholic binge getting cited for disorderly conduct, theft, and ignoring his ex-wife’s (Audrey Marie Anderson‘s Jenny) restraining order while Wade (Tristan Lake Leabu) sits at a window watching his mother waste away from drugs and bad choices if she’s even around to be seen at all. Crossing paths as her inevitable overdose occurs, the boy must thaw his hardened cynicism and ask for help just as the soldier next door readies to silence his nightmares for good. A fateful instance of tragic luck indebting them to the other, this first step on the road towards hopeful optimism almost gets lost amidst the horrible price paid to achieve the chance at attaining it.
The central journey becomes what happens after Anthony is allowed to take Wade home for the couple days before a foster bed is freed. Looking to battle personal demons and earn some semblance of redemption, the former Marine sees the boy as someone in need of protection. Unsure if he’s even able to give it, though, only the promise to help find the boy’s estranged father gives them purpose. A troubled mind trapped in darkness allows him to justify ‘kidnapping’ Wade so they can follow an aging postcard’s clues while providing the opportunity to teach equally misjudged fatherly advice along the way. Scenes depicting Wade learning how to shoot a shotgun and fight his battles prove just how far gone Anthony’s sense of decency is, yet also reveal the compassion still buried beneath the pain.
Papazian has culled together a great supporting cast to help deliver an authentic portrayal of his heartfelt story. Azura Skye‘s nurse May becomes a Godsend of delicate care guiding both men through their tragedies with a wealth of humanity in her soft eyes while Laura San Giacomo‘s social worker Jolene adds some humorous fire to the action with a no-nonsense attitude. A perfect infusion of sarcasm and responsibility, her role first appears to be a woman just doing her job before it shows how important the kids in her possession are. Stopping at nothing to protect Wade—even if it means trusting Anthony—she is to him what Charles S. Dutton‘s police Captain is to the lost soldier. Understanding Anthony’s plight while trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, Dutton is in the position to finally break through.
Wade is the catalyst showing there is more to life than wallowing in self-pity, but Dutton provides the opportunity to release the pain in an emotional scene clarifying the nightmares sprinkled throughout. It’s here where Papazian shines—distraught and crippled by the memories of a horror he’ll never forget. He’s pretty good at playing the obnoxious drunk too, but one would have to imagine that’s the fun stuff keeping him loose and natural. Some of the situations are anything but with how they conveniently bring the journey full circle in a mirror of tragedy, yet this shouldn’t be a surprise considering the subject matter. It’s therefore young Leabu’s duty to make us believe the unconventional relationship at hand despite the convenience because they barely know one another and yet must appear so close.
Rising to the occasion after a shaky start, Tristan’s Wade earns the older than his years mentality and the vitriol towards the prospect of being thrown back into a broken system he already lived within once before. The boy is as in need of a bona fide parent as Anthony is someone to love, but the two’s fateful encounter only offers the chance at surviving together and not the guarantee. For that they must bond in their own time and acknowledge what it is to no longer be alone. Sappy and sentimental as a result, there is enough message above its contrivances to show Papazian has more to offer cinema than his small acting roles of the past.
Least Among Saints hits select cities today.
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