Racism and religion, hatred and friendship, bullying and war, atomic bombs and the consequences of using them — heavy stuff to pack into a faith-based film. And one aimed at children.
“Little Boy” is loaded with weighty subjects and teachable moments, all doled out between generous helpings of tragedy and sentiment. It’s an ambitious but cluttered weeper whose lessons might have stuck, had there been fewer of them.
Pepper (Jakob Salvati) grows up during World War II, and has to send his best friend, his “partner,” his dad (Michael Rapaport) into combat in the Pacific. The teen brother (David Henrie) who didn’t qualify for service makes sure that Pepper, derisively nicknamed “Little Boy” by one and all, knows who to hate. Their nickname starts with a “J” and ends with an “ap.”
Little Boy finds his racism lessons interrupted when a kindly priest (Tom Wilkinson, superb) forces him to befriend the other most bullied person in their coastal California town — Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) — an older man just released from an internment camp.
The kid, just 8 years old when the movie starts, is a huge fan of a comic book and movie serial magician, Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin, cute), whose personal appearance at the local theater convinces Pepper and a lot of his peers that Little Boy has magical powers. In a child’s mind, faith and magic are given equal billing. Catholic teachings that “a mustard seed” of faith “can move mountains” lead to the confusion. But the priest guides Pepper’s Christian education, even if he’s not sure Pepper moved a mountain, that it could have just been an earthquake. And no, Pepper can’t end the war and save his father just by pointing his hands at the sun setting over Japan.
“Your faith won’t work if you have even the slightest bit of hatred in you,” he counsels, and the kid listens.
The director of the anti-abortion drama “Bella” will give you whiplash with his abrupt changes in tone. Newsreels and animation mimic the racist propaganda of the day, the teen brother, egged on by the grieving father (Ted Levine) of a casualty, takes up drinking and hate crimes. Mom (Emily Watson) weeps for her missing-in-action husband and is hounded by the opportunistic doctor (Kevin James) who thinks she’s a widow. The cute kid dreams of saving the day, and has nightmares about what another “Little Boy” did to Hiroshima.
“Little Boy” is all over the place and unsure of its audience. That “Touched by an Angel/Son of God” team, Roma Downey Jr. and husband Mark Burnett, produced and got the melodrama into theaters. The “magic” of religion is challenged by the faithless, and the idea of literal miracles is pointedly dismissed.
But where would this “Little Boy” be without faith, without believing in something greater than all the woes that face his world? That lesson, and the kindly and sympathetic presence of Wilkinson, makes this scattered but upbeat serving of schmaltz more palatable than the angrier “God’s Not Dead” fare making it into theaters.