Watching Little Boy, particularly in its opening moments, is a venture in a particularly American brand of nostalgia – the type that people remember as “the good old days” (if you’re a straight white man). It’s a film steeped in sentiment, as the coastal town of O’Hare, California is filled with a movie theater that plays serials, an ice cream parlor and a general store. It’s a beautiful town, but one with its own set of troubles. World War II has taken plenty of men from the town, leaving those who are left with a certain amount of hatred. Meanwhile, for seven-year-old Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), his small stature makes him the target of bullying classmates.
The film follows Pepper after his father, James (Michael Rapaport), is sent to war in place of his flat-footed brother, London (David Henrie). A sermon from the town’s priest (Tom Wilkinson) makes the boy believe that with faith, he can will his father back home. For an unexpectedly large amount of time, the film follows through on a scene between Pepper and the priest that argues for the necessity of faith, without insisting on conforming to a particular religion. There are some jarring, over-the-top racial references to the Japanese early on, and they escalate once Pepper begrudgingly befriends Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), but the racists in the town buy into the racism so readily, and the film does a solid (if not spectacular) job of illustrating how prejudices can come from fear and despair, which when left unchecked can be influenced by outside forces.
In the hands of a strong filmmaker, the material here could create a far more potent message. Unfortunately, director/co-writer Alejandro Monteverde leans toward hitting the marks his film requires as much as possible. There are several scenes of Pepper intercut with other characters, attempting to draw comparisons in an unsubtle manner.
With the explosion of faith-based productions from major Hollywood studios in the past few years, Little Boy does represent a step in the right direction for how these films can target a larger audience: by mixing lessons in morality into the narrative, rather than hitting the lessons over the audiences’ heads. Unfortunately, Little Boy doesn’t quite hit the mark as a film that it wants to make, mainly because the lessons it provides are so basic, and the reactions to Pepper’s lessons are too easily elevated.