LITTLE BOY (2015)
Starring Jakob Salvati, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Michael Rapaport, David Henrie, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Kevin James, Ben Chaplin, Ted Levine, Abraham Benrubi, Ali Landry, Toby Huss, Eduardo Verástegui, David Ury, Candice Azzara, James DuMont, Lorna Scott and Kelly Greyson.
Screenplay by Alejandro Monteverde and Pepe Portillo.
Directed by Alejandro Monteverde.
Distributed by Open Road Films. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Little Boy is a sweet and nostalgic film about family, life, love, faith, war and understanding. It was obviously put together with love, devotion and craft, and it features a surprisingly strong cast for such a tiny little movie. Therefore it almost seems mean to point out how heavy-handedly preachy it tends to be.
Which in itself is not a huge surprise, I suppose. Little Boy is a religious film dressed up as a drama about the home front during World War II. There is a strong audience for this type of project – as God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real have shown. It is certainly within the filmmakers’ prerogative to explore their beliefs in their film.
There has certainly been a significant grass-roots effort to spread the word of the film amongst religious groups, putting together a decent buzz for a film that has apparently been finished and on the shelf without release for about three years. (IMDb has people asking about a release date on the film’s message boards going back to 2012.)
The problem is, like so many religiously based films, Little Boy can’t see beyond its own agenda of gaining converts to its beliefs. The plot is always at service of the cause, which often makes Little Boy feel more like a sermon than a film.
Little Boy claims to be about the strong bond of love between a father and son – and to a certain extent it is – but it’s even more crucially about the love for the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Little Boy takes place in a California seaside community, starting about the time of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and lasting through soon after V-J day. (The film’s title, though referring to the main character, a particularly diminutive child, also is a fairly obvious foreshadowing for anyone who knows anything at all about the history of World War II and the Manhattan Project.)
However, the little boy that we are most supposed to relate to is Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvuti), an adorable but diminutive seven-year old who lives with his doting father (Michael Rapaport) and his stoic mother (Emily Watson). Pepper is unusually small – the local doctor (Kevin James) fears he may be a dwarf – and he is picked on by the local bullies, particularly the doc’s brutish son. Dad is a mechanic of very simple needs, the only things he really seems to care about are his family, his community, his business and a pair of extremely loud cowboy boots that he covets at the local general store.
Life in this bucolic hamlet is thrown into havoc when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor leads the US to join World War II. Pepper’s hateful, alcoholic older brother (David Henrie) immediately wants to join the army to fight off the Japs, but he is refused entrance because of flat feet. Since the son couldn’t go to war, their solid, loving 40-something dad is forced to ship off into combat. (Yeah, I didn’t quite understand that connection either. Is the movie suggesting that the military insisted on at least one man from each family, who it is really doesn’t matter all that much?) Dad is quickly captured by the enemy and put in a POW camp.
Meanwhile, brother takes over the family car repair business, getting drunk and angrier and angrier while hanging out with his bigoted friend (Ted Levine). Brother is helping to get Pepper to hate the “Japs.” (For a religious film, there is a lot of hateful invective thrown about here, even if it is half-heartedly called out as wrong.) When Pepper tries to vandalize a local Japanese man’s house, the kindly local priest (Tom Wilkinson) decided to teach Little Boy a lesson in tolerance and love.
The priest gives the little boy a list of tasks to take on to learn good citizenship through his faith: Feed the hungry, cure the sick, befriend the lonely, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. (Not surprisingly in a religious film, clothe the naked turns out to be a particularly fast-and-loose interpretation.) The padre explains to Pepper that a mustard seed can move a mountain, so Pepper steals a mustard seed from the local general store and sets off trying to work miracles.
Through these tasks Pepper befriends Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the gruff Japanese man who he had tried to vandalize. They quickly fall into a Karate Kid type of mentor-mentee friendship. It is never quite explained why Hashimoto seems to be the only “Jap” in town who is not in the Japanese interment camps, as those facilities are certainly discussed and active in the world of the film.
The set designer does a fine job of gathering together lots of props from the era and the costume designers also have done their job impeccably, but somehow the world of the film never really feels like the 1940s.
The miracles – as so often in life – could just as easily be described as coincidences. Is it really doing Pepper any good for the whole town (and the film) to suggest that he is the one causing things like earthquakes to happen?
But, okay, let’s take the film’s concept at face value. Let’s say that by staring off into the distance, waving his hands, praying and humming that the little boy is going to be able affect the course of a war across the ocean from him, simply through the purity of his faith. Let’s say that idea is realistic and not delusional. Is the movie trying to suggest that this one boy’s father’s life is of greater importance than the lives of the nearly 200,000 Japanese civilians killed in Hiroshima? (As well as 70,000 more in Nagasaki?) Are those lives less worthy because they are written off as the enemy – an idea that flies in the face of the earlier life lessons that the priest so forcefully taught Little Boy? Or is it because they were by and large not Christians? That hardly seems like a very Christ-like attitude for a family film to be espousing.
Little Boy will probably have a following, and deservedly so. However, very few people will see it who weren’t already believers, and the non-believers who do stumble upon it may leave the theater feeling decidedly lukewarm about this film and its obvious agenda.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 24, 2015.