We are told stories as kids that are meant to inspire us, motivate us or even teach us of the world. At one point, we all believe in Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, or even the Easter Bunny, but we then come to terms with these invisible, external forces and shed them as we grow up. In the meantime, we take guidance from any person in a position of power, even if it contradicts what we’ve already learned. Little Boy is story of Pepper (Jakob Salvati), a boy who is developing a little slower than the other boys (or maybe the other boys are just huge for their age). Pepper loses his best friend and father when he decides to enlist to fight in Japan. With his only source of happiness gone, Pepper is forced to face the cruel world without his usual support, so he looks for it externally. He can’t go to his brother, who has turned to drinking. His mother (Emily Watson) is busy trying to keep the household running, and managing grief of her own. Continually bullied, and given the nickname “little boy”, he turns to the church for guidance.
After misunderstanding a sermon by Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson) involving a mountain and a mustard seed, he is sent on a fruitless quest by the Father that is the equivalent of religious busy work. Pepper hopes that once he has completed all of the tasks on the list, he will have accumulated enough faith points to end the war and bring his father back. One of the hardest things on the list he has to overcome is befriending the local Japanese-American Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who is the town pariah because of the war. Their friendship teaches Pepper how to deal with the many bullies that harass him daily. Not everyone in town is as understanding as Pepper, and it will ultimately lead into a ground-shaking climax as Pepper goes from pipsqueak to paragon.
The film is full of strained sweet moments and tactless tenderness. The crisp, vibrancy of the cinematography gives the film less of a humble Leave It To Beaver feel and more of comic book universe tint. It makes the film nice to look at, but without a competent story, you’re better off looking at a still life. With perhaps the exception of Kevin James (who plays the city’s doctor), the rest of the cast does an adequate job at their roles. Jakob is able to play up Pepper’s adorable, childlike naiveté to completion, but any good impressions he may have made are squandered when the film ties in his nickname to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and everyone in the film praises him for that coincidence. Also, it might just be a 1940’s cultural disconnect, or the term no longer has any negative meaning for my generation, but any dramatic effect that was supposed to be created when all the other children call Pepper “little boy” falls completely flat. Why? Because he is, in fact, a little boy like all the other little boys calling him that.
What starts to become exhausting, is that the film takes advantage of every moment to stand on its tiny soapbox and try to push some moralistic message, either faith-based or otherwise. That would be fine if it would actually stick with a theme, and not try to cram a dozen different Sunday school lessons into 90 excruciating minutes. It failed to stick to either the religious believer or skeptics perspective. Instead, it paints the local priest as a self-serving manipulator offering the child veiled promises of his faith being able to end wars or bring back his potentially dead father back. Only to add to the kid’s (and our) confusion, they insert a storyline with an older Japanese man in an attempt to foster a sense of acceptance and understanding. They do that on the vaguest of terms, by presenting the most generic of Japanese cultural references: samurais.
Even the veteran cast–and the cuteness of newcomer Jakob–weren’t enough to salvage Little Boy. Built on good intentions and flimsy ideologies, this film collapses on itself, undoing any good it has done by moving from moral to moral with the same attention span of a child. The 70 years difference between the film’s society and ours can only explain so much of the problems. The rest we have to take on faith.
RATING: ★★(2/10 stars)