Metanoia Films’ first feature-length film — Bella — told the story of an adoptive father, a Joseph-like character, who selflessly stepped into a crisis pregnancy to raise a child not his own.
The same team that produced that film — writer and director Alejandro Monteverde, actor Eduardo Verástegui and producer Leo Severino — have now produced Little Boy.
It, like its predecessor, is a film about a father.
In this case, the film mirrors the Holy Trinity. It’s about the love of a father, the love of a son and what that outpouring of love produces in the small fictional town of 1940s’ O’Hare, Calif., a sleepy fishing village where anti-Japanese racial prejudice runs rampant.
We’re introduced to 8-year-old Pepper (Jakob Salvati) and his father, James Busbee (Michael Rapaport). The two have a special bond and share in their imaginary adventures together — with the father frequently asking his son, “Do you believe you can do this?” It’s a motto that runs throughout the film. Small for his age, Pepper is dubbed “Little Boy” by the townsfolk, his peers and the town bullies.
When Pepper’s older brother, London (David Henrie), is rejected for military service in World War II, the obligation falls on James. With James’ wordless good-bye as he heads to the Asian theater of war, Pepper’s adventures of childhood give way to the harsher realities of life.
Salvati brings an endearing delight to his role. He is a pleasure to watch. His love of comics, magic and heroes is quite typical of boys of his age. After being convinced that he can move a bottle through the power of his will — a magic trick performed by comic-book hero and film star Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin) — Pepper naturally believes that he will be able to end the war so that his father will return home. But, early on, viewers are confronted with the fact that the military doesn’t know whether Pepper’s father is dead or alive, following a tactical operation in the Philippines.
London, who blames himself for his father’s departure, buries himself in drinking and makes friends with the town’s most prominent racists, including Sam (Ted Levine), whose son was killed at Pearl Harbor. London influences his younger brother and brings him along to a failed attempt to vandalize the home of the town’s resident Japanese-American, Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).
As a result, London ends up in jail, and Pepper is sent to church. There, he falls under the discipline of an enthusiastic young priest, Father Crispin, (Verástegui) and an older, wiser priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson).
In one of the film’s best scenes, Father Oliver asks Pepper to move a wine bottle he sets upon his desk. After three attempts, Father Oliver moves the bottle himself. When Pepper complains that he didn’t move the bottle, but that Father Oliver did, the priest explains that such an action is similar to when “The Mover” — God — makes something happen, if it’s his will.
It’s a scene that will remind viewers of the Parable of the Persistent Widow. When young Pepper asks Father Oliver why God wouldn’t want to bring his father back, the viewer realizes that it’s not only Pepper’s faith that is going to grow through this experience, but also Father Oliver’s. At the conclusion of the scene, Father Oliver holds up a mustard seed as he glances out the window at Pepper departing from the rectory yard.
Above all, Pepper wants to know how his faith can grow.
So Father Oliver pulls out an “ancient list” from a Bible and gives it to Pepper. To the list — the corporal works of mercy — Father Oliver adds an additional item, “Befriend Hashimoto.”
Pepper makes myriad attempts to befriend Hashimoto, with little success. The initial trepidation of the two, and the development of their relationship, occurs slowly and naturally, with some help from Father Oliver.
Whether or not the faith of the son will be able to bring back his father, it is the love of the father for the son, and the love of the son for the father, that makes possible the movement of the Spirit in the relationship between Pepper and Hashimoto.
Hashimoto shares the story of the Samurai with Pepper, giving him the courage to face the town’s menacing bully. Pepper enlists the help of Hashimoto in carrying out the tasks found on his list. And Pepper also invites Hashimoto to his home for dinner, a move that later results in tragedy.
Referring to the list, Hashimoto tells Pepper, “It was not stupid. It takes courage to believe. All the love you had for him was contained in that list.”
This film is a nostalgic parable about faith. Yet it’s not what would be described as a faith-based film. Rather, it’s a mature story containing Catholic elements. It treats both the faith of Father Oliver and the lack of religious faith of Hashimoto with respect.
The acting is strong, particularly by Salvati and Wilkinson, and it’s enjoyable to see so many familiar faces in roles throughout the film. Emily Watson plays Pepper’s mother, and Kevin James portrays the father of the town bully — a doctor with ulterior motives. It’s a film that’s appropriate for children about age 8 and up. It’s both life- and faith-affirming. It has an enjoyable score. The pacing and cinematography are excellent. It’s truly a moving and inspiring film.
Twice, the film creatively juxtaposes the experiences of the father at war with the experiences of the son on the home front. These scenes not only bring out the connection between the father and son, but also elicit powerful emotions from the viewer.
If there is a difficulty in the film, it is the way in which it treats the atomic bombing of Japan. In a black-and-white scene reminiscent of Schindler’s List, Pepper, in red, walks amid the ruins of Nagasaki. Considering the immense loss of life, it’s too little. To treat it so lightly risks the film’s greater theme of love. Love at what cost?
Critics, no doubt, will describe Little Boy as predictable, manipulative, cheesy or overly nostalgic. In this case, one might pay more attention to the voices of the average viewer.
Little Boy is a film that viewers can and will enjoy and embrace. It’s the kind of film that audiences want to see with their families.
Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Caveat Spectator: War violence, drinking and racial violence earn this movie a PG-13 rating.