The Young Messiah is basically a low-budget superhero origin story, which makes a certain amount of sense. The film imagines a year in the life of a seven-year-old Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal, Sherlock), depicted as a precocious youngster who hasn't yet learned the truth about his Secret Origin. It's riskier and more imaginative than a lot of religious films, as it engages in some fairly bold guesswork (for this sort of thing, anyway), takes frequent dips into hallucinatory fantasy and examines a chapter of Jesus' life that the Bible doesn't really address (it's based on a novel by Anne Rice). Unfortunately, it's also fairly dull.
The title character appears in dramatic fashion, his face obscured by the sun in order to emphasize the fact that we are seeing the physical manifestation of God. Then, we're treated to an incredibly odd series of events. Young Jesus encounters a couple of bullies in an Egyptian marketplace, and is forced to endure a serious beating. When a young girl tries to intervene, the bullies turn on her. As one of the bullies rushes towards the girl, Satan (Rory Keenan, The Guard) – who has been lurking in the background this whole time, but can only be seen by Jesus – tosses an apple, causing the bully to have a fatal accident. Satan whispers a few words in the ears of bystanders, and suddenly young Jesus finds himself labeled a killer.
Fortunately, the kid has a few tricks up his sleeve (even though he doesn't know it yet). Feeling an instinct he doesn't fully understand, Jesus visits the victim's home, places his hands on him and resurrects him (a pretty useful ability when you've been framed for murder). Naturally, this turn of events causes quite a stir among the locals, so Jesus' parents Joseph (Vincent Walsh, Saving Private Ryan) and Mary (Sarah Lazzaro, The Young Pope) decide that it's time to pack up and head back to Nazareth.
Accompanied by a John Debney score that leans heavily on duduks and ethereal female vocals (a combo that has been exceptionally popular in the post-Gladiator era), Jesus and his extended family hit the road. Included in this group is Cleopas (Christian McKay, Rush), Jesus' wacky uncle. McKay is best-known for his turn as Orson Welles in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, and here delivers the sort of bombastically hammy, shamelessly scene-stealing turn that Welles might have given in a film like this. He's not good, exactly, but he's fun to watch.
If Jesus – who discovers a new superpower once a reel or so (my favorite bit is a moment when he accidentally makes it rain) – is essentially a young Superman, then Joseph is definitely Jonathan Kent. Rather than marveling at his step-son's abilities, Joseph suggests that Jesus would be better off keeping his gifts under wraps (when Jesus heals Uncle Cleopas from a deadly disease, Joseph gets mad... but that may just be because he's tired of hearing Cleopas' grandiose line readings). Meanwhile, Mary fills the Martha role, offering nothing but wisdom and encouragement. Eventually, Joseph and Mary work up the courage to deliver this film's version of a, “So, you're from Krypton...” scene.
Every superhero film must have its villains, of course, and this film has a few of them. Satan – depicted as a gloomy hipster in a cloak - is the Big Bad, but he spends much of his time sulking in the background. Occasionally, he'll get to show Jesus a dark vision of the future or deliver an ominous statement like, “Chaos rules, and I am its prince!” Jesus is also under attack from Herod Jr. (Jonathan Bailey, Broadchurch), depicted as an effete brat who giggles with delight when he talks about crucifying people. Herod intends to finish what his father started and eliminate this alleged “son of God” once and for all, so he tasks Severus (Sean Bean, Game of Thrones) with tracking down and killing the child. Bean does what he can with the part, but basically comes across as a sulkier version of the character Baird Whitlock was playing in Hail, Caesar!
Despite the fact that the film has a pretty colorful collection of story elements, director Cyrus Nowrasteh quickly lands on a bland, vaguely inspirational tone that the film never really works its way out of. There's no real suspense about Jesus' identity (it's called The Young Messiah), no real suspense about whether Severus will have a change of heart and no real suspense about whether Jesus will succumb to the lies and threats of Satan. The brief action scenes that appear don't help matters much, as they mostly look like glossy YouTube presentations of enthusiastic LARPing sessions. The conclusion is exactly the sort of generically uplifting thing you'd expect. Like most superhero origin stories, the film seems to be saving the good stuff for the sequels.
The Young Messiah
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Year: 2016