Pint-Sized Preachers debuts tonight on National Geographic Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Pint-Sized Preachers has an immensely compelling subject in child evangelists, but it immediately runs into framing issues. Specifically, it sets up the entire documentary as a discussion of whether the child preachers are being manipulated by money-grubbing adults or whether they're actually serious about their religion. It does this in the most obvious ways possible: ponderous narration and the use of slow-mo and dramatic chords to make everything seem dangerous.
There are two big problems with this. First, on a philosophical/psychological level, it's a false dichotomy. Maybe the kids' guardians are in it for the money, but the kid actually believes. Or it could be the other way around. Or it might not matter if the audience believes strongly and has the money to spare. There are any number of interesting explanations or analyses to make, but Pint-Sized Preachers ends up using the most superficial one.
It's also frustrating on a pragmatic level. The narrator keeps referring to “skeptics” and summarizing their arguments against the child preachers, but none of these skeptics are ever shown. One of the preachers also does faith healing, laying his hands on the sick. We meet one of his flock, and the narrator intones that she “claims to have been healed by his touch.” But we never hear what she was healed from. Her doctor doesn't show up to corroborate or disprove her story. It simply floats above the scenery, demanding a response that never shows up.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about the framing device is that it's totally unnecessary and clearly added in post-production, a layer of controversy painted over an already-attractive documentary. There are occasional questions to the subjects about the “haters,” but that's it. The rest of the footage is of the child preachers doing their thing and living their lives. And it's fascinating.
The documentary is broken up into three parts, each following a different young preacher: Kanon, a 4-year-old who became a YouTube sensation as a 1-year-old; Terry, a 12-year-old who calls himself the “world's youngest ordained minister”; and Mateus, a 12-year-old in Brazil.
Kanon is the most interesting of the three, possibly because he's first up and the preaching grows a little draining over the course of the hour, but more likely because at his young age, he's a more dynamic presence in front of the camera. One scene, which shows him practicing at night for a performance the next day, is easily the best of a documentary. Here is a 4-year-old kid who looks like he's playing make-believe in his room or mimicking his favorite people (in this case, his father and grandfather, both preachers). His mannerisms when preaching are very adult, but the actual video of him in the documentary shows that it's just a string of mannerisms and catchphrases. However, the editing makes it difficult to see if it's Kanon's full speech or just excerpts.
Kanon's parents are equally interesting. His father has most of the dialogue, including an amazing little speech about how they're not “brainwashing” the kid, they're “training” him. This sounds ominous, but his genial arguments are generally fairly compelling. Kanon's mother only has one throwaway line about how much Kanon likes ties instead of other toys, but the way she phrases it, filled with alliteration and wordplay, gives the impression that language, a preacher's greatest tool, is well-respected in the family's house.
It's also interesting to see the relative maturity of the kids. Part of it is the dress (Kanon in a tie immediately looks twice his age), but it's not just that. Terry, nominally 12, looks closer to 16, especially when compared to his twin brother. Mateus seems to switch between 10 and 15 years old, primarily depending on whether he has his sunglasses on or not.
So it's not like Pint-Sized Preachers is lacking in interesting footage, or has any need to bring up and not answer the discussion of whether this is all a cash-grab. It just seems like a cynical attempt to turn a small slice-of-life piece into a much bigger “issue” documentary.