Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 99 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. The film is set during World War II and includes a father becoming a prisoner of war, so there are some beating scenes and the implication of violence; some language and racial slurs, including the use of the word “Jap”; persistently Christian-focused themes; bullying among children; and the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima is a major plot point that is treated as a positive thing.
‘Little Boy’ wears its Christian-focused viewpoint on its sleeve, but it also revels in a last-minute twist that undermines its messages about healing, faith, and hope.
By Roxana Hadadi
“Little Boy” doesn’t waste much time proclaiming itself as a Christian-themed film: priests deliver words of wisdom, mothers are put-upon but virtuous, and prayer and faith can lead to miracles—literally. That’s all expected, but “Little Boy” delivers these elements in such an heavy-handed way that the film ends up more overbearing than inspirational. Oh, and then there’s that last-minute twist that suggests … well, if you know what the name “Little Boy” is a reference to, you may be able to guess what the film is suggesting. And it isn’t a very charitable, generous, or kind-hearted idea for a film pretending to be so.
Director and co-writer Alejandro Gómez Monteverde centers “Little Boy” on a 7-year-old boy, Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), who lives with his family in the fictional Northern California fishing village O’Hare, such a stereotypically picturesque place that it seems straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. (In fact, Monteverde has mentioned Rockwell’s works as inspirations for this film.) Pepper’s best friend is his father, James (Michael Rapaport, of “The Heat”), and he adores his mother, Emma (Emily Watson, of “The Theory of Everything”), but things aren’t perfect. He’s small for his age, which worries his parents, and he’s derogatively nicknamed “Little Boy” by others in the town, especially those who bully him. Pepper knows what it’s like to be different, and it’s not easy.
But things only get harder when World War II begins and his older brother, London (David Henrie, of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”), fails to enlist because of his flat fleet. It’s up to James to join instead of his son, and when he’s sent off to the Philippines, Pepper has no idea what to do. Looking for guidance, he turns to his priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson, of “Selma”), who suggests that he perform a series of good deeds (“seven corporal acts of mercy”), pray, and become more committed to his faith to pass the time. So Pepper provides shelter for the homeless and food for the hungry and companionship for the sick, but he’s skeptical when Oliver asks him to befriend the town’s most hated resident, the Japanese Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, of “47 Ronin”).
London and others call him a “dirty Jap”; Pepper can’t help but blame the man for his absent father. Naturally, though, it will be this relationship that shapes Pepper, and teaches him about the power of inclusion and sympathy.
Oh, and there’s also a concurrent plotline where Pepper believes he can actually perform miracles because of a trick from a traveling magician, and decides that the greatest miracle of all would be to bring his father back home. Again, if you understand the “Little Boy” reference, you won’t be as taken aback by that how tidbit works into the whole narrative, but oh man. It’s still a doozy.
The thing about “Little Boy” is that everything you can guess could happen does happen, and none of them are handled in a particularly ingenious or creative way. Pepper and his father played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers; their dynamic is as straight-out-of-classic-Americana as you can get. “(Do you believe you can do it?” is how James encourages his son, and it becomes a mantra in the film that overstays its welcome once the conclusion rolls around.) Mr. Hashimoto is the target of bigoted attacks, but he’s just a nice old man (who also doesn’t get any backstory of his own; he exists only to enlighten Pepper about the depths of other people’s cruelty). The bully who picks on Pepper is a jerk, and because goodness and badness run in families, so is his father, the local doctor (Kevin James, of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”) who tries to make the moves on Pepper’s mother Emma after James ships out.
And James doesn’t just go to war, he also gets captured and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp, which facilitates numerous visits from the military to the Busbee family to ratchet up the film’s manufactured tension increasingly each time. A film couldn’t be more about the good old days and how American men used to be and what families used to look like and how religion used to function if it tried.
It’s a pity, because Watson is always stupendous, and Wilkinson adds the right amount of gravitas, and Salvati is cute enough (although way too precocious to be tolerable). And if the film didn’t end like it does, it would just be another over-the-top but mostly forgettable movie aimed at Christian audiences. But the end, which seems to weigh the lives of hundreds of thousands of people against one American’s and stack the odds in the latter’s favor, is so distasteful as to plunge the movie into tastelessness. “Little Boy” is an attempt at heartwarming family viewing that ends far more disgustingly than you could ever imagine.
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