Heart-warming moments can’t save “Little Boy”

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For Digital First Media

“Little Boy” is the latest faith-based movie to hit the theaters. It is set during World War II in the small fictional town of Ohaire in coastal California.

“Little Boy” consciously evokes the look and feel of Norman Rockwell’s view of mid-century America. The film struggles to reconcile this glorified perspective with certain unpleasant realities.

Seven-year-old protagonist Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) has been derisively dubbed “Little Boy.” He is teased and bullied mercilessly by his peers for his diminutive stature.

Pepper seemingly has no friends. His teen-aged brother, London (David Henrie), treats him dismissively.

However, Pepper’s garage operator dad, James (Michael Rappaport), dotes on his younger son. Clearly, Pepper’s dad is also the boy’s best friend.

Pepper and James are both fans of the comic book/movie serial character, Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin). Ben Eagle is a magician. Whenever he moonlights as a crime-fighter, he uses his mastery of legerdemain to foil the villains. Father and son playfully act out episodes from Ben Eagle’s canon of adventures.

The idyllic, small town vibe of Ohaire is disrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States emerges from its isolationist posture and enters World War II.

London attempts to sign up at an Army recruiting station. However, he is rejected as 4F for having flat feet. As he laments, “What’s that got to do with killing Japs?”

The film posits that since London has been rejected, James is somehow obliged to fill his spot. It seems not to matter that James is a middle-aged man with a family. James is shipped off to the Pacific Theater, where he serves as an over-aged infantryman.

Now, Pepper is left alone without his best friend and protector. Pepper would do anything to have his dad back, safe and sound. It is a touching premise.

Pepper consults the local parish priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson). What can Pepper do to bring his father back from the front? Father Oliver cites the Catholic adage, “a mustard seed of faith can move mountains.” He advises a credulous Pepper that if the lad expresses enough religious faith and performs certain good deeds, it may hasten the end of the war and the return of his daddy.

A scene from "Little Boy."

A scene from “Little Boy.”

Father Oliver tasks Pepper with an unwelcome assignment. He must befriend Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from “The Last Emperor” and “Memoirs of a Geisha”), a social pariah. Following Hashimoto’s release from an internment camp, he lives on the outskirts of town. Of course, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Hashimoto is the object of unfettered racism.

Pepper expresses reluctance about accepting this unwelcome duty. However, Father Oliver remains insistent.  He counsels Pepper that “your faith won’t work if you have even the slightest bit of hatred in you.”

The title, “Little Boy,” has a double meaning.  Even after Nazi Germany had surrendered to the Allies, Japan refused to do likewise. The United States threatened “”prompt and utter destruction,” albeit to no avail. Little Boy was the code name for the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Days later, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Both Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson (in an underwritten role as Pepper’s mom) have been nominated twice for Oscars. Their presence here lends some gravitas to the film. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is also a welcome addition to the cast.

Alas, the manipulative screenplay by Alejandro Monteverde and Pepe Portillo is poorly crafted. It propounds a disconcerting message, which conflates magic with faith.

Monteverde had an auspicious debut as the director of the well-regarded film “Bella.” It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. However, that was back in 2006. Monteverde’s résumé reveals  a curious gap since then. In this film, he does little to realize the early promise that he had once displayed.

Husband and wife team Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are among the movie’s executive producers. They have prior producer credits for “Touched by an Angel” and “Son of God.” This film is marred by a similar obsession with proselytizing at the expense of effective story-telling.

“Little Boy” boasts some heart-warming moments. However, they can’t save the film from mediocrity.

PG-13 (for some mature thematic material and violence) 106 minutes. Open Road Films

Nathan Lerner sees over 300 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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