"The Little Traitor," set in 1947 Palestine during the final throes of the British occupation before Israel became a nation, is a lyrical yet emotionally spare film about the unexpected casualties of war.
Based on "Panther in the Basement" by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, the story involves a chance encounter between a precocious young Jewish boy (Ido Port) and a guileless British sergeant, played by Alfred Molina, that changes both lives forever.
Twelve-year-old Proffy, short for "professor," is busy spending his summer mornings in his room mounting imaginary battles with legions of toy soldiers pulled from the box under his bed.
The afternoons are usually spent with his friends in a hillside hangout, working on a crude pipe bomb intended for the real British troops.
But with all the plotting and planning, Proffy misses curfew one evening and runs into Sgt. Dunlop, who's a bit on the soft side, whether it's his belly or his heart.
On the way to delivering Proffy home, which the youngster thinks might come with more consequences than a British jail, they begin a conversation that will ultimately forge a bond neither planned.
Writer-director Lynn Roth hews closely to Oz's tale of boys in need of a father's guidance, of men dedicated to country but sometimes uneasy with the requirements, of the power of reality to change perceptions.
Shooting the film in Israel, Roth and cinematographer Amnon Zalait have made good use of sun-drenched ancient streets and grass-covered hillsides to define Proffy's brighter vision of the world. That world changes when he steps inside the tiny apartment he shares with his parents, with its dark walls forever closing in around him, to say nothing of his father's expectations and fears.
He doesn't know it at the time, but the need for a different sort of father -- one less distant, one who listens -- drives Proffy to seek out the sergeant, though the cover story he concocts for his friends is that he's going on a secret mission for a few days. It is a testament to the hold of childhood dreams on the young that they believe him, and that he believes nothing bad can come of it.
Molina's Sgt. Dunlop, it turns out, is something of a renaissance man, and soon he and Proffy are spending the afternoons puzzling out Hebrew phrases, playing chess or snooker, talking all the while about life and love. Much of what Proffy thought he knew of the world, or at least the British, begins to change.
But the central theme examined by the film is the ultimate price of getting to know one's enemy, and before it's over, both Proffy and Sgt. Dunlop will have to pay, albeit in very different ways.
Molina, who slips into just about any role he's given with ease -- from a cocaine-fueled drug dealer in "Boogie Nights" to an uptight British father in the current "An Education" -- lets us quickly know there is nothing to fear in this friendship, at least not from him. But the filmmaker struggles with the boy's other relationships, and you see that weakness on-screen.
Still, the film is clever in using a child to tease out the misunderstandings that arise between those on opposite sides, even when the river of emotions that should course through "The Little Traitor" sometimes runs dry.
'The Little Traitor'
MPAA rating: This film is not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In limited released, locally at Laemmle Music Hall Theatre, Beverly Hills and Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino