There’s a moment at the end of “Least Among Saints,” as Christian soft rock plays over the credits, where one realizes with surprise that they may have just finished watching a faith-based film. This is certainly up for debate: Martin Papazian’s male melodrama features no climactic Bible reading, no hero pastor and an R-rating’s worth of swearing, yet it hits the required beats of Christian cinema with aplomb. The forced plotting and Lifetime movie-style tearjerking are a chore, and commercial prospects look narrow, but if this is indeed a good-faith effort to preach beyond the choir, it deserves plaudits.
Perhaps biting off one role too many as writer, director and star, Papazian registers best as an actor, realistically inhabiting his post-traumatic-stress-tormented ex-Marine protag, Anthony. Newly divorced and haunted by combat flashbacks, Anthony is quickly turning into the town drunk back in Tucson, Ariz., nearing the end of his grace period with a sympathetic local police chief (Charles S. Dutton). Yet if there’s anyone in town to make his self-control issues appear less toxic, it’s his next-door neighbor Cheryl (A.J. Cook), a drug-addict prostitute who conducts business in full view of her mop-topped 10-year-old son, Wade (Tristan Lake Leabu).
Motivated less by a latent paternal instinct than just basic decency, Anthony makes baby steps toward connecting with his wayward young neighbor, inviting him over for hot dogs and keeping an eye on the house. When Wade’s mother dies from an overdose, Anthony feels compelled to take care of the child, despite his obvious parental unfitness and the protestations of a weary, sarcastic social worker (Laura San Giacomo).
In the early going, the hesitant moments of bonding between the screwed-up soldier and the pugnacious tyke are handled quite delicately, with neither party moving too eagerly toward trust or tenderness. Things take a turn for the tiresomely predictable, however, when the two set out on a road trip to find Wade’s absentee father, using only a faded postcard as a clue. The film eventually comes back to a more solid narrative plane, but by then a wave of soap-opera-like Sturm und Drang has pushed it too far away from reality for it to connect on a gut level.
On the technical side, the film has a distinctly midbudget TV look, which is probably better than its actual financials. Acting is solid if unremarkable all around, with San Giacomo the sharpest of the supporting bunch.