This politically simplistic, clumsily plotted film is an easy-to-swallow cinematic snack, winning over Jewish Film Fest audiences with its cutesy sentimentality and hormonally comic chuckles but offering little in the way of meaningful entertainment. Though The Little Traitor benefits greatly from its authentic period Jerusalem setting and a likable (yet broadly limey) performance by Alfred Molina, it suffers from didactic bromides and psychologically shallow characterizations.
Set in Palestine in 1947, in the days when Jews threw rocks and assassinated the British occupiers, we meet 11-year-old Proffy (Ido Port), the precocious son of Holocaust survivors who runs a safe house for renegade Zionists (aka terrorists). A wannabe insurgent, Proffy is caught after curfew by soft-hearted British Sergeant Dunlop (Alfred Molina) and the two — cue the sappy music — strike up an unlikely friendship. It's boy meets goy, as Proffy embraces Dunlop as the warm, open-minded father figure his emotionally detached dad is not. But when the Jewish community finds out ... well, the title pretty much says it all. Proffy's heroes turn villainous and his assumed enemy is revealed to be anything but.
Based on the Amos Oz novel, Panther in the Basement, director Lynn Roth's film is the same treacly love-thy-enemy story you've seen a hundred times before, set in a potentially fascinating time and place. Unfortunately, after an interesting setup, with Port and his pals preparing to become freedom fighters — their plan to build a nail bomb is surprisingly unsettling — Dunlop's appearance signals a cascade of clichés to which you can set your watch.
Molina is engaging, but Port's performance is so affected you can almost hear Roth whispering lines to him just outside the film's frame. The Little Traitor fares best in its more memoirish moments — such as the casual bonding between Proffy and Dunlop — but derails completely by the third act, suddenly indulging in coming-of-age boob jokes and a useless flash-forward to 30 years into the future.
What might have been an intelligent and engaging meditation on zealotry is instead a by-the-book tale of a boy seeking fatherly guidance, a soldier uneasy with his orders, and, of course, misguided perceptions. In the end, The Little Traitor is less interested in honestly appraising history or the tangled politics of occupier and the occupied, and more interested in presenting a naive parable of Jewish idealism. It's a condescendingly unsophisticated approach that seems to throw up its hands and claim that the current state of the Gaza Strip is everyone's fault, so why don't we just all try to get along. La, la, la. Ho hum.
At the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.