Theo Love’s mesmerizing documentary Little Hope Was Arson is as evenhanded as it is unsettling. On the surface, it’s the story of Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister, two angry, drug-addled East Texas youths who, in 2010, felt betrayed by their religion and burned down 10 local churches.
But Love neither condemns nor condones the boys’ crimes (we don’t even know if he thinks they truly deserve their quintuple life sentences, which seem awfully harsh). And, while capturing the variously inflammatory and despondent reactions of relatives and townsfolk, he ensures that no one else in this predominantly Southern Baptist community is cast as villainous or heroic.
Even the most wrathful parishioners — some of whom want the boys killed — are somehow empathetic, in that they lost lifelong havens and fear for their own safety. On the other hand, Bourque’s grandmother, who comes off the saintliest for having raised the troubled boy — his mother was a cocaine and meth abuser — seems a little off-center in her refusal to grasp that religion can’t bring her offspring the same peace it affords her.
Throughout, Love yields alarmingly candid and devastating reflections from his interviewees, most notably McAllister’s father’s retelling of his attempted tree hanging — son cut the branch and saved father’s life — and the boys’ former youth minister’s teary regret that he didn’t reach out to them more. Love’s one misstep is to end with an emphatically atheistic quote — from Italian anarchist Buenaventura Durruti — which seems to undermine the intelligence of his more devout subjects.