A recent high-profile rash of church burnings in East Texas is revisited in Theo Love’s “Little Hope Was Arson,” an artfully crafted look at a crime spree whose motivations remain somewhat cloudy after an hour-and-a-quarter of evidence and interviews, including with the perps themselves. It began its U.S. rollout in 18 markets on Nov. 21, simultaneous with VOD launch.

Little Hope Baptist Church was the first among 10 houses of worship within a 40-mile radius to be burned down over five weeks’ span in early 2010. Its destruction was actually blamed on an accidental electrical fire until later, when it became clear that other churches had been victims of arson. Someone then scratched the pic’s title phrase on a public restroom stall wall, as if bragging that they hadn’t destroyed just nine structures, but had entered the double digits already. By then, the fires had sparked the largest criminal investigation in East Texas history.

Despite a distracting mountain of worthless “tips” from outraged community members, investigators pretty quickly zeroed in on two primary suspects, 21-year-old Daniel McAllister and 19-year-old Jason Bourque, longtime friends who had, in fact, met in church. But their faith had been shaken by everything from AWOL girlfriends and troubled family backgrounds to (particularly at the time of the crimes) drug abuse. Thus, they turned their anger toward the institutions they thought had failed them, though in retrospect (during brief prison-interview footage at pic’s end), the two disagree whether they really had any motive for setting the fires or not. Were their actions planned and executed in a senseless druggy haze, or were they trying to send an (admittedly counterproductive) message to “wake people up” spiritually?

While the crimes were appalling, one leaves “Little Hope Was Arson” less concerned with them — especially as all the churches have since been rebuilt — than with larger questions of forgiveness. Various players, from the boys and their loved ones to the ministers and their flocks, all offer individual takes on to what extent (if any) the acts can or should be forgiven. But the Texas justice system expressed its opinion in blunter, more negative terms: Despite taking a plea deal and waiving their right to jury trial, the two young men were each sentenced to concurrent multiple life sentences without possibility of appeal; it’s unclear here whether they will ever be eligible for parole. Regardless, that’s an exceedingly harsh judgment for two barely adult men sans prior arrest records, whose crimes destroyed property but physically harmed no one.

Nate Larson’s lensing is above documentary average, while first-time feature helmer Love’s editing does an astute job of shaping the pic’s first 45 minutes as an investigative mystery, leaving the post-arrest remainder for collective soul searching. The sole, minor assembly flaw is use of some overamplified, slightly overbearing various-artist songs on soundtrack.

Film Review: ‘Little Hope Was Arson’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Nov. 24, 2014. (In Slamdance Film Festival.) Running time: <strong>74 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) An Orchard release of a Collaborate and Goodnight Smoke presentation. Produced by Trenton Waterson, Theo Love. Executive producers, Bryan Storkel, Tom Waterson, Cindy Waterson, Tom Love, Kathy Love, Will Gauroutte, Joshua Fine.
  • Crew: Directed, edited by Theo Love. Camera (color, HD), Nate Larson; music, Michael Lee, Austin Taylor Tirado; music supervisor, Darren Rose; re-recording mixer, Stefan Macarewich.
  • With: Bil Parr, Benny Woods, Lee Richards, David Mahfood, Peggy Mahfood, Larry Smith, Brent Davis, Christy McAllister, Brian Hoback, Roy Devisscher, Kim Bourque, Bob Steel, Brenda Steel, David McAllister, Carlton Young, James Ellis, Dan Harrison, Greg Waldron, Brent Ratekin, David Martin, Jason Bourque, Daniel McAllister.