"Do you believe you can do this?”
Little Boy is a family friendly faith-based film, and that usually means it’s going to be overly sentimental and manipulative, which proved to be the case once again here. These films aim so hard at being inspirational, that they end up accomplishing the opposite. Alejandro Monteverde’s film is completely generic and it follows the same beats other movies in this genre tend to hit. From the overbearing narrative which spells out everything that you are about to see and allows you to see the twists coming a mile away, to the cute child actor performance who is impossible not to sympathize with, and the overly heavy handed preachy message that is repeated throughout the movie. Non-demanding audiences who simply want to have a good time with their families will enjoy this because it looks nice, but there is no substance to it and the formula is repeated once again. I didn’t feel uplifted or inspired by its message because it lacked originality. The film forces you to feel a certain way about each character instead of allowing you to make up your own mind about them. It’s a shame because the cinematography was solid and there were some great actors involved, but the producers played it safe and gave us a generic film which will easily be forgotten. If you want to inspire and move your audience, then actually try being inventive and taking risks instead of centering on an overly melodramatic premise.
The story take place during the Second World War in a beautiful California town. It is narrated by the protagonist who recalls his life during that troublesome period as an 8 year old boy who due to his short height had to deal with the bullying and teasing from other kids his age. Pepper Flynt (Jakob Salvati), who the people in town call Little Boy, has a solid relationship with his father, James (Michael Rapaport). He can ignore all the bullying when he is surrounded by his father’s love and devotion. His mother Emma (Emily Watson) and his older brother London (David Henrie) are all fond of him, but he adores his father above all. Things take a sharp turn for Pepper when James is sent to War and he is left on his own waiting for his father’s return. He is touched by a sermon given by Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson) about the power of faith and how someone with faith the size of a small mustard seed can move a mountain. He and his dad were fans of a comic magician named Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin) and when he comes to town during a performance, Pepper is invited on the stage as a volunteer and performs a magic trick which convinces him he too has special powers. Confused by this event and Oliver’s message, he puts his faith on his father’s return. Oliver gives him a list of things he must do (feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, clothe the naked, and so on) if he wants his faith to work. At the end of the list Oliver adds one last thing: befriend a Japanese. This because after the Pearl Harbor incident everyone in town was verbally assaulting a Japanese immigrant named Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), including Pepper who was relieved to see some of the bullying heading another direction. The film then centers on this odd pairing between the two and after a series of coincidences and random events Pepper begins to truly believe he has the necessary faith to bring his father back home. But has Oliver gone too far by making him such a promise and giving Pepper so much hope? If the film would’ve cared to explore that question in more depth, we could’ve had something interesting, but instead it settles for the easy way out.
Despite all the familiar themes this inspirational film tackles, I did have a major problem with its message. The way it handles faith and compares it to something like magic is troublesome. This film tries to do what most religions do, which is tell us that faith has to do with how well we perform. In other words, you need to do a certain thing or follow certain rules if you want faith to work. Which is basically saying that it is all about you and how you perform. I don’t agree at all with that view about faith and find it extremely problematic considering the film is geared towards a faith-based audience. However, I never judge a film for its message so that is not why I’m criticizing the movie. Its fault relies on its generic style and melodramatic storytelling. Talented actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson are given nothing to do, and even Kevin James is inexplicably in this film playing a role that could have easily been cut out of the film. Jakob Salvati as the lead delivers in charm and sweetness, but we are forced to sympathize with him and that didn’t allow me to enjoy his performance. Little Boy is overly sentimental and that is its greatest fault, but I guess that is what one would expect from family friendly films like this that try too hard to inspire its audience.