There are phrases that automatically change the perception if a film. 'Based on a true story' and 'Inspired by actual events' may pop up on opening or closing credits to give the movie a jolt of emotional impact. Psychologically, the knowledge that a film is nonfiction somehow provides validity for viewers. I believe this is why people are so hard on 'lost footage' or 'mockumentary' type films. Audiences somehow feel slighted by the illusion of facts within a story. 'The Least Among You' is a movie that is inspired by a true story. Following a young Richard Kelly, Director Mark Young presents a story that is moving and inspirational, but lacks key elements needed for a great movie.
After being arrested for his involvement in the 1965 Watts riots, Richard Kelly (Cedric Sanders) is sent to an all white seminary for probation. He must find a way to make it through the racial slurs and maintain a decent grade point average to avoid time in jail. The president of the seminary, Alan Beckett (William Devane) sees contribution dollars in the future by breaking barriers with Richard in his school. When Richard begins to stand up for his beliefs, on both a physical and spiritual level, the faculty then shows their true colors. Under the watchful eye of school gardener Samuel Benton (Louis Gossett Jr.), Richard begins a journey where conviction is key and faith is the ultimate weapon.
It is difficult to bash a film based on real life struggle, but I have to be the guy who does it. Many may look at the low budget roots or lighting fast shooting schedule (the film was shot in less than three weeks) as a crutch, but having seen plenty of great independent features I don't buy that excuse. The problem is the direction and the acting. While the older cast members deliver great performances, highlighted by William Devane's smarmy performance as a spiritual leader, the cornerstone of the film is cracked. Cedric Sanders has a limited range and lack of passion that disrupts the film. He seems to have the same facial expression throughout the film and his body language presents Richard Kelly as stiff rather than fluid and passionate. Sanders does begin to show promise once his character taps into more of a spiritual side, but by then the emotional connection has been broken. This is where Writer/Director Mark Young should have stepped in. Sanders performance is vital to an effective story. As a first time director, I am not sure Young was able to balance the pressures of a low budget production and get the performance he needed out of an actor in his first lead role. It is proof that a strong story does not always translate into a strong film. These growing pains will be a lesson learned and hopefully applied to Young's next feature should he decide to step behind the lens again.
The 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer for 'The Least Among You' certainly shows its low budget roots. There are some lighting issues that contribute to a lack a detail during certain scenes and the movie has a made for television haze about it. Outdoor scenes have more clarity, but still seem soft. 'The Least Among You' is an average transfer that seems to be hindered more by how it was filmed, rather than the way the DVD was produced.
Though it boasts Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio on the cover, there is only an option for Dolby Digital 2.0 on the DVD. I wouldn't anticipate much from the additional speakers had the 5.1 option been included. The dialogue heavy movie would most likely be limited to the front field, leaving only the film's score as an option for rear speakers. The "Family Approved" copy of 'The Least Among You' may throw a curveball at viewers who are not familiar with the concept. There are quite a few moments during the film where profanity is clearly dubbed over. It is a process similar to PG-13 or R rated films that are shown on network television. This only happens about half a dozen times, but is a bit of a distraction.
The extra features are the highlight of this DVD. Starting things off is the "Rev. Dr. Charles Marks - The Real Richard Kelly - Footprints In The Garden" featurette (21:42), an interview with the man whose story inspired the film. The interview, which is fleshed out by scenes from the film, is an excellent addition to the feature. I was more drawn in my Rev. Marks talking about his story than the film itself. He is not flashy, but his laid back approach is filled with a passion that shows why his calling has been a success. Also included is an interview with Editor Omar Daher and Composer Mark Kilian (16:43). This extensive interview provides additional insight from key behind the scenes participants. This interview also has scenes from the movie and provides some additional perspectives on the film and characters. The four deleted scenes (7:48) on the disc are a combination of extended scenes as well as scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. While none of the scenes are bad, it is obvious how their inclusion would disrupt the pace of the film. 'Easter Dinner' is a prime example of a good scene that would be out of place in the final cut. "Behind the Scenes" (15:37) is a combination of interviews with Writer/Director Mark Young, Producer Julia Verdin, and key members of the cast along with some great behind the scenes footage. A lot of behind the scenes featurettes tend to play scenes from the movie along with the interviews. It is nice to see the actual production of a film rather than more of the final product. Trailers for a trio of inspirational films from Lionsgate and a plug for 'Epix' close out the additional features. The films, 'No Greater Love', 'Midnight Clear' and 'Pride', all seem to be direct to DVD feature films.
'The Least Among You' is a great story that seems to have missed the mark. I understand that a low budget will put constraints on a project, but it is unfortunate to see a great story suffer because of inexperience. I believe with a bit more time, Mark Young could have found the proper pieces and spread the message to a few more followers. In what may be a first, I would recommend renting this disc for the extra features rather than the film. The cast and crew, along with Rev. Dr. Charles Marks himself, provide enough material to successfully tell the story without budget constraints or deadlines. I only wish this passion made it to the final product.