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Greaves-Neal shines in unique look at the life of 'The Young Messiah'

"THE YOUNG MESSIAH" — 3½ stars — Sean Bean, Adam Greaves-Neal, Vincent Walsh, Sara Lazzaro; PG-13 (some violence and thematic elements); in general release

“The Young Messiah” is a film of journeys. In one, a young Jesus Christ and his family return from Egypt to their home in Nazareth. In another, a Roman Centurion is sent on a quest to kill the Son of God.

The third is more spiritual and the most compelling journey of all. It is the journey Christ himself takes to learn his true identity and purpose in life.

“The Young Messiah” is based on a novel by Anne Rice (best known for writing “Interview With the Vampire”). The film is a speculation on events that might have taken place between the Nativity and Christ’s ministry.

When we join the story, Jesus (newcomer Adam Greaves-Neal) is somewhere around 7 years old and living with his family in Alexandria. Jesus has already begun to display miraculous powers, but Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro) still haven’t told him the full details about his birth.

When Joseph learns that King Herod has died, he decides it is safe for his family to return to their homeland. And given the local tensions that are growing as a result of Jesus’ blossoming powers, the family is happy to oblige.

What they don’t know is that the new king, Herod’s son (Jonathan Bailey), has heard rumors of the boy’s exploits and is determined to finish the job his father couldn’t. He even goes so far as to give the assignment to a Roman Centurion named Severus (Sean Bean) who helped carry out the initial massacre of the innocent.

As the story moves forward, Jesus continues to demonstrate his divine capacity, healing his uncle Cleopas (Christian McKay) of a lethal illness and encountering various people along the road. But without a full context for his actions, the young Messiah is increasingly frustrated, especially when he has visions of a dark robed figure (Rory Keenan) spreading mischief that no one else can see.

The nearer his family draws to home, the more evidence they see of the horrors of Roman occupation. In one chilling piece of foreshadowing, the family has to make their way down a road that is dotted with crucified Jews.

Telling an apocryphal tale of Christ’s life is hardly a new idea (see last year’s “Last Days in the Desert” for a recent example), and the concept of a Roman soldier going on a quest of discovery after encountering the Savior is especially well trod (we’ve already seen two mainstream interpretations of this trope in 2016 in "Risen" and the fictional film at the center of "Hail, Caesar!"). But one of the great successes of “The Young Messiah” is the way it takes the familiar and makes it fresh and engaging.

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh works with an effective, understated tone that respects his story enough to let it speak for itself. Greaves-Neal’s performance is a perfect fit for this style. The boy’s pure-faced look alone could do the job with ponderous, wordless stares, but his delivery is more than equal to his weighty task.

We don’t get as much of Bean as you might expect — or fans of the actor might want. But he serves the film well in a role that is becoming a bit of a tradition in and of itself. If faith-based films are meant to engage those outside the faith, the Roman Centurion has become their vehicle.

Walsh and Lazzaro are strong in their roles, and Lazarro feels especially effective as Mary. For a film based on speculation, “The Young Messiah” does a wonderful job of providing thoughtful and compelling content while staying within safe narrative bounds.

“The Young Messiah” is a film that will appeal to the faithful, but it should still be engaging to those outside the faith community. Mainly because of all the characters to relate to, it’s probably easiest to relate to Christ himself as he takes his journey of discovery.

It’s a journey worth watching and is a strong step forward for faith-based cinema.

"The Young Messiah" is rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements; running time: 111 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.