Christian audiences have made themselves a demographic worth chasing by turning recent releases like “Son of God” and “Heaven is for Real” into bona fide blockbusters. It’s hard to know who exactly are the ideal viewers for the latest faith-based film, “Little Boy,” though.
Mouth-puckeringly saccharine in a way only children’s movies can get away with, the World War II drama is saddled with a (probably deserved) PG-13 rating that would impede the only people who might actually get something out of it (i.e., little boys and girls) from seeing it.
Executive produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the husband-and-wife team behind “Son of God,” “Little Boy” boasts several moral lessons worth repeating. Though it’s set in a sleepy seaside town and filmed through semi-grainy, nostalgia-ready filters, the film takes care to remind us that the good old days weren’t all that great. Eight-year-old Pepper (Jakob Salvati), nicknamed Little Boy for his short stature, has only a single friend, his gentle giant of a father (Michael Rapaport). Pepper’s loneliness isn’t a knock against him, though, since his schoolmates are the kind of nasty kids who cheer on a hulking bully to beat up a kid half his size.
Director Alejandro Monteverde (“Bella”) also revisits the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment that led both to individual hate crimes against and the mass internment of native-born and naturalized Americans. To counteract such injustice, the script argues, devotion should be accompanied by good deeds toward the less fortunate. Most impressively, the film admits that the line between faith and magical thinking isn’t as solid as most believers would care to admit — and the Church knows it.
Unfortunately, these worthwhile ideas are contained in a phony-baloney tale more artificial than a polyester teddy bear stuffed with Splenda and Cheez Whiz — and just as appealing. In arguing for the possibility of miracles, “Little Boy” performs one of its own by slowing down time. The experience isn’t unlike watching a reluctant child eat her vegetables: You’re glad she’s getting the nutrition she needs, but you can’t help wondering why in the world you’re sitting there watching this utter non-spectacle.
Pepper has little to do but wait for his father’s return from the Philippines after the latter enlists in his older son’s (David Henrie) stead for reasons that are never made clear. While the local doctor (Kevin James) makes a few moves on Pepper’s mom (Emily Watson) in her husband’s absence, Little Boy embarks on a project of completing a list of benevolent acts furnished by his priest (Tom Wilkinson) in the hopes that becoming a better person will help bring his father home safely. The most difficult of those acts is befriending the elderly Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese-American man who has avoided internment (again, for reasons that are only plot-convenient) but has no home of his own.
Though he’s scarcely more than a stereotype — an asexual and largely inscrutable Asian man who isn’t even afforded a first name — Hashimoto is also easily the film’s most interesting character. Pepper may be friendless in town, but the Japanese man is a hated outsider, refused service at the lunch counter and regularly threatened by strangers, who strives to find dignified ways of dealing with every racist encounter. Initially, Pepper unthinkingly calls him a “Jap,” even when he brings the older man a soda as an apology for throwing rocks at his house in an earlier scene. (The pain and humiliation of internment is largely elided here, but Hashimoto’s beleaguered existence is telegraphed through his frequently disheveled hair and sloppily buttoned shirts.)
Though he doesn’t question Pepper’s faith, Hashimoto does engage in friendly theological debates with the boy’s priest about “your imaginary friend in the sky.” Notably, Hashimoto is never punished for his atheism, but then again, the film is conspicuously careful to soft-pedal its religious messaging. More controversial might be the way the film turns the nuclear attack on Hiroshima into a cheap pun: “Little Boy” was the name of the first atom bomb dropped on Japan.
Pepper and Hashimoto gradually become friends, of course, both desperately wishing for the war to end for different reasons. Tricked by a two-bit magician dressed up as his favorite superhero, Pepper comes to believe that he has telekinetic abilities, hopefully enough to transport his father home. Though it leaves room for starry-eyed viewers to believe that Pepper can channel such power through prayer, the film is flexible enough to also suggest that religious belief can offer hope when nothing else will.
“Little Boy” doesn’t quite convince us that “it takes courage to believe,” as Wilkinson’s priest argues, but it’s a more serious reckoning of faith than most other movies of its ilk — as well as a fine model of how religion can and should do more to fight against prejudice.