×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Little Boy’

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

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.

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.

More Film

  • Nadine Labaki

    Cannes: Nadine Labaki to Head Un Certain Regard Jury

    Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki has been named president of the jury for Un Certain Regard in Cannes. The Festival said Labaki had been chosen after “moving hearts and minds at the last Festival de Cannes with her Academy Award- and Golden Globe-nominated ‘Capernaum,’ which won the Jury Prize.” More Reviews Concert Review: Yoko Ono Earns [...]

  • Osmosis

    Netflix Unveils Four More French Originals, 'Gims,' 'Anelka,' 'Move,' 'Of Earth And Blood'

    As it prepares to open a fully-staffed office in France and ramp up its investment in local originals, Netflix has unveiled three new documentaries, “Move” (working title), “Gims” (working title), and “Anelka” (working title), and the feature film “Of Earth And Blood” while at Series Mania in Lille. Announced during a panel with Netflix’s commissioning [...]

  • Miramax Developing 'I Won't Be Home

    Film News Roundup: Miramax Developing 'I Won't Be Home for Christmas'

    In today’s film news roundup, “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” is in the works, the NFL has made a documentary about female team owners and D Street Pictures has signed Kenny Gage and Devon Downs to direct the dance feature “Move.” HOLIDAY PROJECT More Reviews Concert Review: Yoko Ono Earns a Wide-Ranging, All-Female Salute [...]

  • Michael B. Jordan arrives at the

    Michael B. Jordan to Star in Warner Bros.' 'Methuselah' Movie

    Michael B. Jordan will produce and star in a “Methuselah” movie for Warner Bros., based on the Biblical story of a man who lived to be 969 years old. Jordan will produce through his Outlier Society production company along with Heyday’s David Heyman and Jeffrey Clifford. More Reviews Concert Review: Yoko Ono Earns a Wide-Ranging, [...]

  • Davids Chief Piera Detassis on Revamping

    Davids Chief Piera Detassis on Revamping Italy's Top Film Awards

    Piera Detassis recently became the first woman to head the David di Donatello Awards, Italy’s equivalent of the Oscars. Since then she’s been busy overhauling the inner workings of the prizes that will be awarded on Wednesday. Detassis, also the editor of Italian film publication Ciak, spoke exclusively to Variety about the challenges she’s faced [...]

  • Matteo Garrone's 'Dogman' Leads Davids Awards

    Matteo Garrone's 'Dogman' Leads Davids Awards Race

    With 15 nominations Matteo Garrone’s “Dogman” leads the pack of contenders for Italy’s David di Donatello Awards in a watershed year for the country’s top film nods that sees highbrow auteur titles reaping most of the David love just as local box-office grosses hit an all-time low. Garrone’s gritty revenge drama is followed closely with [...]

  • steven spielberg Apple TV Plus

    Steven Spielberg's Apple Appearance Riles Up Social Media: 'Big Old Mixed Message'

    Many Hollywood heavyweights flocked to Apple’s Cupertino, Calif. headquarters to help reveal the tech giant’s revamped steaming service Apple TV+ on Monday — but one such legend was so polarizing he became a national trending topic on Twitter for simply showing his face. Steven Spielberg was the first to appear in a dramatic short film [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content