Mark Reviews Movies

Little Boy


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alejandro Monteverde

Cast: Jakob Salvati, Emily Watson, David Henrie, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tom Wilkinson, Ted Levine, Michael Rapaport, Kevin James, Eduardo Verástegui, Ben Chaplin

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some mature thematic material and violence)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 4/24/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 24, 2015

Little Boy centers on faith, but it doesn't pander. It's a surprisingly questioning movie, in which the eponymous 7-year-old boy presents a comic book featuring his favorite hero to a Catholic priest and asks the man of the cloth how he might go about possessing the same abilities as the magician superhero from the comic panels. The priest protests that such stories are mere fantasy. At that point, co-writer/director Alejandro Monteverde cuts to paintings of Noah's Ark and Moses parting the Red Sea. The kid and the priest give each other a knowing glance.

Those insert shots are obviously tongue-in-cheek commentary, but what one takes away from the gag may vary. It's either a statement that those stories are "mere fantasy" or that they just seem that way. However one takes that jab/mild blasphemy, though, the point is clear: This isn't a movie that's going to take religious faith as a given.

The movie's central question of faith revolves around two events that some characters see as miracles and others simply see as acts of nature or man. It is strange or, perhaps, telling that the unanimous consent on the act of man is that it is a miracle, while the natural event raises a debate around the sleepy town of O'Hare, California. The act of nature is an earthquake, which makes the debate even stranger. One supposes it's not the event of an earthquake in California that gives these folks pause. It's that the quake occurs at a specific time—namely, when the little boy is willing something miraculous to happen.

The act of man is only "miraculous" in a certain narrow and ignorant context, and the movie handles the tricky subject with proper care and an appropriate level of horror. After all, it's only the people of the town who see it as a miracle. Monteverde and co-screenwriter Pepe Portillo know better. It's a ghastly ironic turn for the movie, which, up until that point, has asserted innocence in the divine or coincidental answering of the boy's wishes. This instance is some kind of cosmic cruelty.

The movie's innocence is obvious from the start, as an elderly man recalls his youth in that mountainside town. The boy is Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), the apple of his father James' (Michael Rapaport) eye. The two are partners in all things, especially games of make-believe in which they imagine going on various adventures. Pepper's mother Emma (Emily Watson) is the one who brings the duo back to earth.

Pepper is small for his age, but the local doctor (Kevin James) isn't ready to diagnosis him with anything yet. He does unintentionally give Pepper a new nickname for the town bullies to use: "Little Boy."

When the United States becomes involved in World War II, Pepper's older brother London (David Henrie) is rejected by the Army on account of his flat feet, meaning that their father must enlist. Pepper is determined to find a way to bring his father home. A visit from the star of the movie serials based on his comic book hero gives Pepper the idea that he might have some special powers.

That brings us back the conversation with the priest (Tom Wilkinson), who obviously isn't willing to suggest that having faith instills a person with magical abilities or means that all of a person's wishes will come true. His father, the priest tells the boy, will come home, "if it's God's will." The boy counters: Why wouldn't it be God's will that a boy's father return home safely from a war? The priest is flummoxed by the challenge to his assertion, but he provides Pepper a list of benevolent activities—feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, etc.—that will, if nothing else, make him a better person. The priest adds one more: Befriend Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a local Japanese man who was recently released from an internment camp, whom the locals distrust, and whose house London and Pepper vandalized.

The development of their friendship is gradual and genuinely sweet, much to the consternation of London and the local bigots who want Hashimoto to leave town. The two grow to understand and respect each other, and Hashimoto expresses his concerns to the priest that he might be giving Pepper false hope. Hashimoto has faith in a person's ability to bring about change in his or her own life and the world, and if the priest's advice doesn't work, the man worries that Pepper may lose faith in himself.

That's the central debate here as the movie enters into its "miracle" phase. It's refreshing to see a movie that treats faith—and, more importantly, deeds that actually express religious beliefs—with enough respect to examine it. Monteverde and Portillo don't skimp on a healthy amount of skepticism, either, and even that is portrayed as healthy and logical, not destructive and cynical.

The problems arise in the movie's last act, after the arrival of that grand, horrific irony. The movie may touch upon the darker side of things as the war and its outcome become important plot points, but Little Boy is far too eager to please. The movie starts down an honest path near the conclusion, but Monteverde and Portillo can't follow through on it. The result is uncharacteristically—and unfortunately—manipulative and dishonest.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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