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The Least of These (2009) - 2/4

The Least of These is unoriginal and highly manipulative, yet still manages to be entertaining. This is without a doubt due to the affection and care put into its characters and a naive innocence writer-director Nathan Scoggins brings to the picture. The enthusiasm with which he crafts the film would make it seem he's unaware it's neither original nor terribly insightful.

Fr. Andre Brown (Isaiah Washington) is a new teacher at a Catholic boys boarding school. Is that setting off alarm bells in your mind? Boys and Catholic priests? Yes, The Least of These is about abuse and the complicity of church bureaucrats. It might have been timely ten years ago. Now it feels predatory. Fr. Brown's ally is the headmaster (Robert Loggia) and his enemy is Fr. Peters (Bob Gunton), who is suspicious of his mysterious past. He works to befriend a loner named Parker (Jordan Garrett) and tries to figure out what happened to his predecessor, a Fr. Collins who disappeared without a trace after a transfer.

The Least of These would have felt much more at home on the Hallmark Channel. Every predictable bit of cinematic manipulation occurs shamelessly and I groaned each time. So obvious is the dialogue that this old trick is used: Fr. Peters says he'll call Fr. Brown 'Andre' until he's earned his respect. Do you suppose there'll be a moment when he finally calls him 'Fr. Brown'? Indeed. During a foodfight, the score immediately switches to that 'this is a whimsical moment' music. I don't want to be too cynical: not everyone is as troubled by overt manipulation and obvious creative choices. I can see some--the sort of people who are easily engrossed and not too reflective--falling under the film's spell. But the cliche moments will repel many as they did me.

There are also some moments of downright incompetence and they occur primarily at the very beginning of the film. Awkward camera movements, a sudden irrational pan to a piece of luggage that's never seen again, and confusing edits make up the first five minutes. Given the rest of the film is competent, I can only charitably speculate that these scenes were shot under time constraint.

The mystery that takes over the second and third acts is mostly successful. Despite some predictable turns of events, there are some reasonable and interesting developments arising from the characters and their situations. One is never convinced of the possibility of things not turning out for the best, however, which detracts somewhat from the effectiveness of these developments.

The characters are the real strength of The Least of These. Fr. Brown is not some upstart who enters the school and wins the children over with his wacky, unconventional teaching methods. He even says so himself. He's just a young priest who is interested in getting to know the youths and in doing his job well. He's authoritative without being aggressive. He's someone anyone could respect, even if he doesn't always make the right decisions. In fact, that he doesn't always make the right decisions adds to the humanity and depth of his characterization. The youths aren't so successfully drawn, if only because, after spending so much time on them in the first act, Scoggins nearly forgets about them midway through the second act. Yet even they have a real interior life that distinguishes them from the mere boys' school stereotypes they might have been. It's too bad these characters have to occupy such a trite film.