09/28/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Movie Review: Least Among Saints

As Anthony, the ex-Marine protagonist of the new film Least Among Saints, astutely points out, life sometimes comes down hard and we find ourselves plummeting toward the bottom of a psychological and philosophical abyss worthy of Dante, so wracked with guilt, disappointment, and the pain of being abandoned by all we hold dear, that we think the churning in our guts will never end, that the only way out is death. But then, if we're lucky, circumstances present themselves that give us the opportunity, if we're careful and we don't screw up, to crawl out of that hellish pit one painful step at a time.

Such an opportunity comes to Anthony in this indie film written and directed by Martin Papazian, who is also its star. Anthony arrives home after yet another night of driving around Tuscon drunk in his pick-up truck, an important stop having been his ex-wife's front yard (restraining order be damned), his desperate plea inarticulate except for a couple of honks of the horn and a wounded hound dog stare. Yes, we've already seen him get his discharge papers from the U.S. Marine Corps, and have taken the hint that Anthony is not a bad guy, but a suffering war vet, a good man who knows not where to turn. The powers-that-be assume he's a loser, but we can see beyond the rough edges to the troubled but honest soul beneath.

Next door, a woman is being assaulted in front of her house in full view of her young son, and Anthony is able to rescue the damsel in distress. Yet it is soon evident that she is no damsel and that her distress is mostly self-induced. She's a junkie with little discrimination in her choice of male companions. Her son Wade is a fatherless10-year-old whose surly behavior obviously reflects his loneliness and fear. Yet the next day, when his mother leaves the boy with Anthony because she needs to go for a ride with the same guy who was beating her up the night before, Wade and the ex-Marine see the pain in each other's eyes and a connection begins to form.

A night or two later, Anthony is in his garage, grappling with suicidal tendencies, when Wade comes pounding on the door, seeking help. Something is wrong with his mom! Okay, I think that's enough of the plot. If I tell any more of it, the movie will be spoiled. Let me just say that Michael Papazian is so likable as Anthony, and Tristan Lake Leabu imbues Wade with such an innate understanding of courage as well as loss, that the movie's initial downbeat mood steadily evolves into a shining monument to the power of the human spirit.

Least Among Saints takes its place within a tradition of coming home stories involving soldiers who have fought in foreign wars. A few that come quickly to my mind are Oliver Stone's film Born on the Fourth of July (based on the book by Ron Kovic), Hal Ashby's Coming Home (starring Jon Voight and Jane Fonda), William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, and Ernest Hemingway's short story "Soldier's Home." Least Among Saints is probably closest to the Hemingway story because Papazian chooses to forego the scope and wider political themes of the films, and Anthony is not physically disabled, although he suffers from tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But Anthony does not have a real home to come home to -- his parents are not mentioned, and his ex-wife makes it clear to him that "you don't live here anymore."

As I said, I don't want to give away too much of the story, but I must mention in vague terms one scene that stands out for me: It takes place out in the desert, where Anthony takes a chance on a questionable father-son-like bonding opportunity with Wade. When things go tragically wrong, Anthony's response is at first very unsettling -- I felt a shiver of fear -- but ultimately cathartic and therapeutic. You'll know what I am talking about when you see it, and you will be impressed.

A word of advice: At times it seemed to me that the movie was a bit unrealistic, that some of Anthony's actions eluded consequences that we would naturally expect. But don't be dismayed. Papazion has a strong directorial hand here and is not cutting corners. The actions of police detective George (Charles S. Dutton), social worker Jolene (Laura San Giacomo), and a certain nurse at the local hospital make sense in the context of the story, given the tight local community that is established early on.

Besides, the story has a subtle, almost naive, fable-like quality that makes us hope that, at least sometimes, honorable people with little power can, when it is most important, overcome obstacles put in their way by well-meaning but jaded bureaucrats. The movie brings more than one tear to the appreciative eye. It premieres October 12. If you're sick and tired of all the blockbuster shoot-'em-ups, try Least Among Saints.