Faith-based films have had an uneven record at the box office. The latest movie attempting to tap this market, "Little Boy," is an often appealing, sometimes cloying nostalgic drama set during World War II. Even with a strong cast and impressive production values, it faces an uphill battle to capture a sizable audience.
The production from Mexican director Alejandro Monteverde, who made the well-liked film "Bella" almost a decade ago, is designed as a fable about the power of faith to change the course of history. What makes it intermittently palatable even to nonbelievers is that it acknowledges some of the darker truths of the era.
The film is set in a fictional small town called Ohaire, Calif. Although it is a close-knit community, not all is idyllic in Ohaire. Our young hero, Pepper Flint Busbee (Jakob Salvati), is ruthlessly mocked by his classmates because of his diminutive stature.
The story gets underway when Pepper’s father and chief protector (Michael Rapaport) goes off to war and then is reported missing in action, probably a Japanese prisoner. Pepper, who is nicknamed Little Boy, is desperate to have his father return, and the local priest (Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson) encourages him to believe that if he has enough faith, he may have the capacity to alter the course of the war.
There are a few amusing touches that seem to corroborate the boy’s supernatural powers without falling over into religious drivel. When Pepper sets out to demonstrate to the skeptical townspeople that he does have the strength to uproot the terrain, an earthquake appears to validate his claims. Later the war comes to an end as a result of an atomic bomb given the name Little Boy (this is historically accurate, of course), and the townspeople genuflect before our pint-sized hero.
The film also benefits from an unexpected bit of social commentary. One of the town residents is a Japanese man released from an internment camp. He is ostracized by the community, but the priest convinces Pepper that as part of his spiritual journey, he must befriend the hated Hashimoto (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa). Although Pepper resists the assignment at first, he does develop a tentative friendship with Hashimoto, which is threatened by the bigoted townspeople.
These lessons in tolerance may not be earth-shattering, but they give the film some moments of power and bite. Nevertheless, the candy-colored fable is a bit too sluggishly paced to achieve any real drive. The soft focus photography is pretty but too bland. Although the film’s uplifting conclusion is predictable, there are some poignant moments before the glowing finale.
Besides the always impressive Wilkinson, the cast includes another Oscar nominee, Emily Watson, who gives a moving performance as the boy’s no-nonsense mother. Kevin James plays against type effectively as a lonely widower. Young Salvati is clearly an amateur, but he makes a likable protagonist. David Henrie as his more racist brother creates a complex character, and Hiroyuki-Tagawa contributes a dignified portrayal.
But in the end the entire picture, though well-meaning and even thoughtful, is just a little too gooey.
Review by Stephen Farber, The Hollywood Reporter