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.