"Saints and Soldiers" represents a significant step forward for LDS filmmaking. Not only is this World War II drama the best locally produced film in quite some time, it may be the first that actually advances the form since the 2000 arrival of "God's Army."

"Saints and Soldiers" may also be the first of this current crop of LDS-centric filmmaking to really appeal to an audience outside of its obvious target demographic. While it does delve into matters of faith under trying circumstances, it's quite subtle about doing so, and it never pushes an agenda at the expense of the story or characters.

Admittedly, there are moments where the movie betrays its relatively low-budget roots. And there's some very convenient plotting that strains credibility just a tad. But the film is so well-acted and so effective that those are minor complaints. (It should also be mentioned that, despite its initial R rating from the MPAA, the film is quite restrained in its depiction of wartime violence. The changes that were made to get the a PG-13 rating are minimal.)

"Saints and Soldiers" follows four American GIs who manage to escape from German captivity during 1944's Malmedy Massacre in Belgium. Among them is Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred), a sharpshooter who's suffering from shell shock.

So he and the others — Gordon "Gundy" Gunderson (Peter Holden), Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby), and medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver) — try to make their way through the Ardennes Forest and stay alive, hoping to find shelter and food.

However, their efforts to do so become complicated when they stumble across Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), an RAF spy bearing critical information regarding enemy positions. Now they'll have to find a way to sneak him past Nazi patrols to find an Allied camp at the risk of their own safety.

Ryan Little's direction of this material is quite confident, especially when you consider that this is just his second film as a director (after the 2002 romantic drama "Out of Step").

Thanks to the often tense and suspenseful action, the film moves along at a rapid clip. And it's really an acting piece, relying heavily on the actors, whose performances are up to the task. They're all solid, though the standout is Allred, who is believable and sympathetic. Even some of the sketchier aspects (particularly Heyborne's too-broad British accent) don't detract.

"Saints and Soldiers" is rated PG-13 for strong scenes of war violence (shootings and explosive mayhem), gore (fairly restrained, considering the subject matter), and scattered use of mild profanity, as well as slurs about nationality. Running time: 91 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com