Film Review: ‘Little Boy’

little-boy-review-emily-watson-jakob-salvati

Faith can move mountains, but it's the audience that is left curiously unmoved by this relentlessly manipulative WWII-era drama.

God helps those who help not only themselves, but also the less fortunate in their midst — or so goes the tidy moral logic of “Little Boy,” a cloying and callous WWII-era parable about how faith can move mountains, overcome prejudice, and even rob death of its sting. Making an ambitious follow-up to his Toronto audience award-winning debut, “Bella” (2007), writer-director Alejandro Monteverde brings a sledgehammer touch to the story of a small-town runt who hopes that his string of good deeds will bring his beloved father home from the front lines. Insofar as subtlety is rarely deemed a virtue where the vast majority of “faith-based” entertainment is concerned, this relentlessly manipulative drama just might connect with its target audience, even if saddled with a PG-13 rating that exec producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett lobbied unsuccessfully to have downgraded to a more family-friendly PG.

To its credit, the movie (which Open Road is releasing April 24) does make some effort to convey the proverbial horrors of war as observed by one James Busbee (Michael Rapaport), a hard-working auto mechanic plucked from the seaside town of O’Hare, Calif., and sent to fight in the Japanese-occupied Philippines. He leaves behind his loyal, loving wife, Emma (Emily Watson); a loutish teenage son, London (David Henrie); and an earnest 7-year-old, Pepper (Jakob Salvati, cute and overdirected), whose diminutive stature has earned him the nickname “Little Boy” and no shortage of local ridicule.

Since his father is his best and only friend, Pepper can’t wait for James to return home, though whether he will return at all is anyone’s guess. But the boy soon receives a consoling lesson in the power of belief — first from the traveling magician Ben Eagle (a mustachioed Ben Chaplin), and then from the kindly village priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), who gives Pepper a list of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy (“feed the hungry,” “shelter the homeless,” “visit the sick,” etc.) and tells him that if he fulfills it, the Lord may well be sufficiently moved by Pepper’s faith to bring his father home safely. Sensing an opportunity to teach the boy a thing or two about tolerance, Father Oliver adds one key item to the list: Befriend Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the widely hated Japanese-American man who lives on the town’s outskirts.

That turns out to be easier said than done, thanks to not only Hashimoto’s gruff manner — which at times threatens to turn “Little Boy” into an unintentional remake of “The Karate Kid” — but also the prejudiced townsfolk, who refuse his business and repeatedly call him a “dirty Jap” (the script, co-written by Monteverde and Pepe Portillo, doesn’t soft-pedal the language). To a lesser degree, Pepper, too, is treated like an outcast, bullied by the town’s meanest kid (Matthew Scott Miller) and often scolded by London, who violently disapproves of his growing friendship with Hashimoto. Even as Pepper shakes things up by pulling off one good work after another — becoming, in effect, the pint-sized Christian answer to Haley Joel Osment’s secular saint in “Pay It Forward” — he can’t stop these tensions from bubbling to the surface.

And so the stage is set for a string of conveniently timed miracles that will see O’Hare fall to its collective knees, and Pepper exalted as a local hero. One of these climactic revelations can be readily guessed at the outset — at least, if you know enough about WWII history to hear the words “Little Boy” and feel a sense of sobriety rather than uplift. Understandably, the filmmakers don’t seem particularly at ease with scenes of the townsfolk rejoicing in the streets, a ghastly miscalculation that reveals their tale for the trite little Sunday-school fable it is. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly what kind of God — or rather, what kind of filmmaker — would consider it righteous or edifying to wipe out an entire city for the sake of mollifying some saucer-eyed little moppet, or weigh one American’s survival against the lives of 129,000 Japanese and deem it an even trade.

The problem here isn’t theological; even if it were in service of a different message entirely, the sheer gracelessness of Monteverde’s storytelling would be a massive turnoff. The decision to shoot on 35mm film stock is a refreshing touch, though the images themselves have an overly bright, goopy sheen that doesn’t always flatter Bernardo Trujillo’s well-mounted production design. And whether it’s the frequent closeups of Salvati’s tear-stained face (an image the film wields like a cudgel) or the repeated positioning of The Judgmental Onlookers in the background, there isn’t a single scene here that Monteverde doesn’t see fit to slather in folksy voiceover and/or musical corn syrup. Amid all this ham-fisted hullabaloo, the performances of Wilkinson, Tagawa and especially Watson stand out for their dignity and restraint — beacons of grown-up sanity in a movie that is otherwise content to treat the viewer like a child, and not a particularly bright one at that.

Film Review: ‘Little Boy’

Reviewed at Open Road screening room, Los Angeles, April 5, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

An Open Road Films release and presentation of a Metanoia Films production. Produced by Eduardo Verastegui, Leo Severino, Alejandro Monteverde. Executive producers, Verastegui, Emilio Azcarraga Jean, Bernardo Gomez Martinez, Roma Downey, Mark Burnett, Mickey O’Hare, Sean Wolfington. Co-executive producers, Ricardo Del Rio Galnares.

Crew

Directed by Alejandro Monteverde. Screenplay, Monteverde, Pepe Portillo. Camera (color, 35mm, Panavision widescreen), Andrew Cadelago; editors, Fernando Villena, Meg Ramsay, Joan Sobel; music, Stephan Altman, Mark Foster; music supervisor, Kristoffer Roggemann; production designer, Bernardo Trujillo; supervising art director, Marco Niro; art directors, Carlos Benassini, Francisco Blanc; set decorators, Jay Aroesty, Jorge Barba; costume designers, Laura Jean Shannon, Rebecca Gregg; sound, Fernando Camara; supervising sound editor, Gregg Baxter; re-recording mixers, Steve Pederson, Brad Sherman, Jeremy Peirson; visual effects supervisors, Wayne Brinton, Mike Shand; visual effects producers, Lisa Dennis, Brad Reinke; visual effects, Modus FX, Opus VFX, Therapy Studios, Visual Creatures; line producer, Luisa Gomez de Silva; stunt coordinator; assistant director, Sebastian Silva; second unit directors, Garrett Warren, Portillo, Tom Campbell; second unit camera, Nathanael Vorce; casting, Dianne Crittenden, Karen Rea.

With

Jakob Salvati, Emily Watson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Michael Rapaport, David Henrie, Ben Chaplin, Eduardo Verastegui, Ted Levine, Ali Landry, Abraham Benrubi, Kevin James, Tom Wilkinson.

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  1. Sr. Elaine Kelley says:

    The film “Little Boy” is a lesson in the theology of evil and the human proclivity for rationalizing it. “Little Boy”, the film title and its main character, is also the name of the 16 kiloton bomb carried by the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay and dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing tens of thousands of people and animals, resulting in the total destruction of a city and long term radiation poisoning with effects still felt today. Another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later. In this kindergarten version of Christianity, the innocent American child of great faith is all good and will do anything for love, like the American political system that would do anything to bring the troops home—including crucifying an entire city. The seeming moral criticism of the racist fear-mongering persecution of Hashimoto, who represents the entire Japanese American community, is done merely in retrospect, whereas the actual bombings of Japan are not criticized in retrospect or in any other way. It is a complete white washing of America’s dark militarized history and its use of weapons of mass destruction against a civilian population. In its ongoing moral blindness U.S. foreign policy pundits insist that the use of those atomic bombs against Japan “saved thousands of lives”—the opposite of what really happened. Of course the white washing continues today in explaining history and in explaining our many ongoing wars around the world. It turns out Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. But you never hear of America’s massive store of weapons of mass destruction, including at least 9,000 nuclear warheads (that the U.S. would never use, of course). Americans for the most part still believe Japan started the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That was evil, too, but it wasn’t what started the war between the U.S. and Japan, which goes way back to the Open Door Policy, Japan’s encroachment on China’s natural resources (tin and rubber), its expansion into China, America’s aggressive encroachment for the same resources and consequent total embargo of oil, metal scraps, and other exports to Japan. In fact there was a long series of mutually antagonistic actions between the U.S. and Japan, like little boys fighting over their toys. No, they were China’s toys. In any case, the film is moronic, an American fantasy with no basis in history or in the Christian message of peacemaking.

  2. Pam says:

    I absolutely could not disagree more with this critic; I believe he is sorely lacking in his ability to review with an eye toward what audiences want – and need. This was a heartwarming story that brings faith to the forefront in managing one’s fears, and depicts the fervent hopes that are often borne from coping with the absolute hell of war. The pain of everyday life for a small boy that is bullied daily is an additional complex layer of the film that bears witness to the fact that those left behind suffered almost as much as those who fought. What a beautiful, rich, heartfelt story, and Salvati gives an amazing, compelling performance.

  3. Valerie says:

    Completely disagree with the critic. I’ve seen it twice and I loved the layers in the film — constantly tugging at the heart strings. Kudos to Salvati. Amazing believable performance.

  4. Jay says:

    My wife and I saw the film last night and both of us thought it a delightful, wonderful movie. I agree with many of the comments below: the less the “critics” like a film such as this, the better it actually is.

    Too many “critics” have a disconnect with the real world and the values that have made this nation what it is–or perhaps better said, what it was.

  5. Boncast says:

    I just saw the movie and I give two thumbs. I had no preconceived ideas of the movie as I had heard nothing about in the media. I went on the I Internet to look up movies in my local movie theatre and watched the trailer and made my decision to see the movie. BTW, I typically choose to see indie or foreign films. I’m not into movies with explosions, violence, gangsta, drugs or sex, I have had tough times in the streets of Los Angeles, there no entertainment for me in violent films when you have tasted it. I’m an aethiest and no issue with the films “religious undertones”. I watch movies for the entertainment factor, and if they have a good feel, even better.

  6. Jorge Vazquez says:

    Unfortunately this review completely gets its wrong. “Small town runt” already shows the
    ugly bias of the reviewer of this film. This is beautiful film that simply and beautifully shows the love between a child and his Dad, the power of faith, the stupidity of racism and so much more. I am a dwarf and perhaps one has to look at it from that perspective to understand. The reviewers use of the word “runt” discredits everything else they say.

  7. Thomas says:

    I always find it a positive indicator that a movie is worthwhile to be viewed when a critic trashes what looks to be a wholesome and enjoyable film. In other words, the more butt-hurt the critic is, generally the better the movie. Going to see it tonight, thank you for the giving it a bad review!

  8. Gregory Peterson says:

    All movies are fake, not a single one is real, they are all made up. So, a little kid makes some local news and timed some things just right, or did he? God does not come out of the clouds and say to everyone looking, “Hey, did you see what I did with that kid?, Cool huh?” This movie had no severe profanity, no heavy violence and it ended with a family reunited under difficult times. This movie had a simple message with a simple theme and some tough experiences for a small kid, I enjoyed it and give two thumbs up.

  9. Non Bias says:

    2 Big Thumbs Down for this movie.
    The story line is all over the place.
    It reignites racist dialogue against certain ethnic groups that died a long time ago.
    It introduces certain racist name calling to the new generation when those terms were almost extinct. It’s a mess of a movie that they are surprisingly trying to call a movie w/religious overtones in their marketing material. Not for adults & absolutely not for kids.

    • Sal U. Lloyd says:

      Is that it??? Your first comment makes absolutely NO SENSE whatsoever. The movie is condemning the racism against Japanese and Japanese-Americans and racism in general. Do you HONESTLY believe that a Japanese-american actor, Cary Hiroyuki Togawa, in this case, would have singed on for racist movie??? Are you stupid or just dumb??? Your dumb comment is like saying SELMA is bad because some characters say “n****r” in the movie!

  10. Greg says:

    Wonderful film. Really enjoyed this movie. Its sad critics like this one need to bash a film just because they don’t like the people they believe it appeals too.

  11. Greg says:

    Holy cow — does the little kid cause Hiroshima with his faith? That would seem almost satanic in its message. Is there a plot synopsis with ending anywhere out there?

  12. The reviewer lost me when talking about dropping the atomic bomb. Listen, Leni Riefenstahl of reviewers – no, strike that, she had talent – If it is all about the correct politics, then perhaps you should just drop the pretense and write for the People’s Liberation Army Daily. “All film depictions of the PLA are Glorious!” Right Tom Tuttle from Tacoma?
    Eh, like it matters. You write for the Investia/Pravda of Official Hollywood – that place where icons demand a livable wage……every EXCEPT Hollywood….

  13. Now that I’ve seen your review, Mr. Chang, I want to see the movie more than ever! I often find that my favorite movies are the ones the “professional critics” put down. I’m wondering if you shouldn’t take a couple of years off, take off your educated, sophisticated glasses and become a regular guy… then watch some movies. You might see things differently. btw… many movies are written about one person’s life without stirring the waters of “the good of the world.” Thank you for the review… it was very informative.

  14. Damien Wills says:

    This review is restrained, to be frank. I don’t understand why movies with faithful themes need to be so unbearably awful, but this movie was boring, badly paced, and apparently feels like we need to treat Christians like little children to have our heads patted. But then again, based on the comments on here, maybe the filmmakers aren’t so far off.

    • Sal U. Lloyd says:

      You are not a very acute observer. Some of the best movies are when the protagonist starts out being happy for a few minutes, then tragedy strikes, he falls and goes on a quest/search/struggle that will either kill him or make him stronger than he was. Think Braveheart, Gladiator. It applies to this too, but maybe you were in line getting nachos.

  15. Dawn Gregg says:

    You exhibit a lack of understanding as far as History goes. And, your hard heart is showing too. It’s not attractive.

  16. Nala Jones says:

    Horrible, biased review. Do better, at least work harder on trying to hide the real reason you hate this movie.

  17. Cynthia Miller says:

    Wow. This movie was not good. It was GREAT. The reviewer apparently has no “taste” what so ever, and NO appreciation for the BEAUTIFUL message and sublime cinematography. The homage to Norman Rockwell, who depicted a slice of Americana in all his paintings, was cleverly incorporated into many scenes which was clearly lost on this uneducated reviewer. Alejandro Monteverde is a true artist in every sense of the word and worked extremely hard to deliver a stellar movie for the entire family. Bravo for creating this masterpiece which will be enjoyed by many and live on to become an American classic! I’ve ordered a large slice of Humble Pie with your name on it Justin Chang!

    • Damien Wills says:

      Sooooo….you definitely worked on this movie…
      If this is what qualifies as a modern masterpiece for the faithful, we’re in deep trouble.

  18. What is overlooked in the reviewer’s condemnation of the atom bomb attacks is that if the war had been pursued by conventional means, the death toll of both Japanese and Americans would have been many times higher. Blockade and siege would have meant death by disease and starvation for millions, and invasion would have been nearly as deadly. The Japanese military junta even wanted to fight on after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and were it not for the Emperor’s intervention, they would have. And the captive populations in Asia, along with American POW’s would have suffered many more months, if not another year or two in the event of siege or invasion. The nukes and Hirohito’s demand to surrender actually saved a huge number of lives.

    • briannek7 says:

      I don’t think that was certain. I’m no WWII scholar, but I recall reading that the main reason Japan refused to surrender (even after the first bomb was dropped) was because they didn’t know if their Emperor would be given amnesty. The Emperor ended up being given amnesty under the actual terms of surrender anyway, so it leaves me to wonder — if Japan had been given that assurance earlier, would dropping the atomic bombs be unnecessary?

      A number of officials were horrified at the idea of dropping the bombs. Read General Eisenhower’s quote here: http://www.doug-long.com/quotes.htm

      He believed Japan was ready to surrender but was searching for a way to do so with minimal “loss of face.” ie. without having their Emperor indicted for war crimes.

  19. Sean Derning says:

    Justin, it’s been a while since I read such a cynical review of a film and frankly, I can’t wait to see how the public perceives the film because my hope is that you will be served a healthy slice of humble pie. With the film’s religious theme aside, what will attract the public to the film will be the believable loving bond between a father and his son and the boy’s very real fear of losing that parent to war. Your snide comments (one of a baker’s dozen in the article) reflect the negativity that permeates today’s daily media. I prefer Chicago Tribune columnist Cal Thomas’ review of the film; Mr. Thomas choses to build up rather than tear down. Save your ham-fisted poison for other films that are in their sixth or seventh chapter and are more deserving.

    • D A Coburn says:

      Bravo! No one could have said it better! It is a shame that in today’s society, it is actually better to smoke pot, push a bill through to kill a baby in the third trimester, push your unmoral views and opinions down someone’s throat and be regarded as an upright citizen. Meanwhile, the rest of us that do not believe in these acts are pushed down in silence, while paying for the abortions through Obamacare. The rest of society is getting sued and losing our jobs because we don’t believe in some of their actions and are titled prejudice or discriminatory. Yet, here is a woman that writes a review, not based on the merit of the movie, but based on the prejudice of Christianity.

  20. So Justin… are you saying that you liked the movie @LittleBoyFilm?

  21. Rey Flores says:

    Justin Chang, congratulations on writing the worst-ever movie review.
    Perhaps it didn’t have enough sex, violence or homosexuality in it?

    • Paul Meredith says:

      Why is it that christian films treat subtlety like a sin? That is his main problem as I understand. Also, film critics are not the devil, they simply don’t like bad movies. Me personally, I’m an atheist, but I have no problem with Christianity or religion in general. I’m not one who rambles on the internet about how religion is the worst thing to humanity, I think overall it has benefited us greatly, it’s just not something I choose to believe in. However, as a film lover first, I find most recent faith-based movies to be awful. This one seems alright, although still very on the nose. I thought God’s Not Dead was atrocious, found Kirk Camerons Saving Christmas, Left Behind, and Son of God to be hilariously bad, but I actually didn’t mind Heaven is for Real. It’s not perfect, but it serves it’s purpose and comes off genuinely heartfelt. Hopefully this film winds up being like that, rather than God’s not Dead.

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