"The Last Sin Eater" | A Welsh myth looms over an Appalachian settlement

In marketing faith-based movies for a primarily Christian audience, Fox Faith Movies has suffered through early misfires like the woefully misguided thriller "Thr3e" (which quickly vanished from theaters a month ago) and the classy but tepid "One Night With the King" (now on DVD), but it's beginning to look like persistence is paying off.

The studio's latest offering, "The Last Sin Eater," is an encouraging step forward. Like Fox Faith's previous releases, it's plagued by a modest budget, resulting in the generic production values of a well-meaning TV movie, and director Michael Landon Jr. is clearly promoting the same familiar sentiments that characterized his late father's beloved TV series "Little House on the Prairie."

While that may strike some moviegoers as a reason to stay home, this earnest adaptation of Francine Rivers' acclaimed 1996 novel is easily recommended for what it gets right, and what it gets wrong is easily forgiven.

From a brief prologue we learn that Welsh immigrants settled in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1830s, bringing with them a stubborn belief in the mythological Sin Eater, a shrouded figure who emerges from wilderness exile to absolve the dead of their sins. Jump forward 20 years, and 10-year-old Cadi (appealing newcomer Liana Liberato) is guilt-ridden over the recent accidental death of her younger sister, and desperately seeks the Sin Eater's redemption while still alive.

In her quest for deliverance, she encounters a Man of God (Henry Thomas). His Christian message — that only Jesus can release us from our sins — sends a shockwave through the tiny Welsh community, where the Sin Eater myth has been used to hide a variety of dark and closely held secrets.

All of this unfolds with a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses: Recalling "Cold Mountain" with its stunning Appalachian locations, "The Last Sin Eater" is close to nature and boasts many of the elements we expect from solid family entertainment, albeit with tragic overtones that keep the story grounded in a rich emotional context. Despite the best efforts of its cast (which includes Louise Fletcher as a village elder), it's also fraught with occasionally awkward period dialogue and inconsistent performances that render Welsh accents into something vaguely Slavic, Scottish or Swedish, depending on who's talking.

Then, slowly but surely, the drama deepens, emotions intensify, and "The Last Sin Eater" arrives at an unexpectedly powerful and well-earned conclusion, highlighted by an outstanding scene between Cadi and her mother (Elizabeth Lackey of TV's "Heroes") that will have many viewers reaching for their Kleenex.

None of this qualifies "The Last Sin Eater" as any kind of classic, but given the relative depravity of mainstream Hollywood, it's pleasantly surprising when worthy alternatives become available.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Last Sin Eater," with Liana Liberato, Louise Fletcher, Henry Thomas, Soren Fulton, Elizabeth Lackey, Stewart Finlay-McLennan. Directed by Michael Landon Jr., from a screenplay by Landon and Brian Bird, based on the novel by Francine Rivers. 117 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief violence. Several theaters.