Young Mr. Jesus

Jesus is the kid with the long hair
“Young Mr. Jesus”
A Review of The Young Messiah by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Two Reels            

Origin tales are a constant fascination of storytelling, looking behind the veil to see how the great characters of history were formed prior to their legend. The Young Messiah examines the most perplexing mystery of Jesus’ biography, the so called “hidden life” from infancy to the Wedding at Cana, a period spanning thirty years with almost no biblical evidence and limited tradition. Based on a novel by vampire turned Christian Anne Rice, director Cyrus Nowrasteh focuses on the struggle of eight-year old Jesus to understand his cosmic importance. Despite presenting some intriguing speculations, the result is a slow paced, rather dull movie that will leave real children thoroughly bored. I imagine that as a true human incarnation this kid would be more interesting in climbing trees than complex inner monologues.
The plot hits the ground running as Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) tries to defend his cousin Salome against a local bully. Satan (the only blond, blue eyed European) causes the accidental death of the bully only to have Jesus miraculously raise him from the dead. Like the foster parents of Superman, Mary and Joseph encourage discretion. Jesus understands that he “is different” from others. “Why can I do these things?” he pleads Mary. “You will understand some day,” she says. This decision to keep him in the dark naturally leads to only more curiosity.
Most of the screen time is focused on Jesus and his immediate family as they return from Egypt to Nazareth after the death of Herod I, but the plot promised by its marketing team involves a jaded centurion named Servus (Sean Bean). A spiritual brother to the centurion in Risen, he has seen many battles and was present at the massacre at Bethlehem seven years prior. When Herod’s son Antipas learns of a child performing miracles in Judea, he sends the Roman soldier to finish the job. Yet as Servus nears his goal, he has more and more reservations regarding the task.
The Young Messiah plays with many questions that theologians have pondered for centuries but also runs into a bit of trouble. For example, the Holy Family does not live alone but with a Slightly Less Holy Family composed of Mary’s older brother Cleopas, his wife, and their two children Salome and James. Although cousins, James takes the role as older brother to Jesus, being both protective but also harboring a resentment over his attention. This solves the question of Jesus’ “brothers” without violating any dogmas, but it would have been much easier to make Cleopas Joseph’s brother as most traditions see Mary as an only child.
The only outstanding element in The Young Messiah is the love between Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro). Their special relationship is both thoroughly chaste but intimate. “I’m scared,” Mary admits as Servus chases them around Jerusalem. “God chose you among all humanity to give birth to His Son,” Joseph smiles. “It’s you they should be scared of.” They understand that they have been chosen by God and need each other to raise Jesus properly. They also exhibit humility, wondering “how to explain God to his own son.” It’s hard to fault them for trying to protect Jesus but also frustrating that they are more honest with him.
            When the danger has passed, Mary finally reveals to Jesus the story of his birth and divine mission.  This raises an important question: as both man and God, how much did Jesus really know at one, five, seven, or even as just a few cells? I have little to add that has already been explained by Stephen Graydus in his wonderful piece on the subject. The only Biblical evidence is Christ’s confidence in the temple at age twelve. Certainly by then he was aware of his mission. Suggesting that Jesus had no concept of His nature prior to this seems to violate God’s omniscience. The Bible gives a small hint to this in the line “he grew in strength and wisdom.” Wisdom does not mean intelligence but understanding through experience. God knew about humanity, but He now had the opportunity to tangibly live an Earthly existence.

            All this is compelling on paper, but it’s difficult to put thinking on celluloid, and this regard The Young Messiah largely fails. There is precious little action and long sequences of characters talking and talking, sometimes repeating previously mentioned ideas. Besides the Servus, Joseph, and Mary, the acting is rather stiff. Finally, the title character sports probably the worst hair style in the history of Biblical cinema. Put frankly, he looks like a girl, and, even if historically accurate, it’s incredibly distracting. The Young Messiah is a worthy effort but better suited for a book than a movie.