This weekend brought us a trifecta of spiritual-based (or at least spiritually-minded) films. The Age of Adeline used a unique twist on timeless love, and though I didn’t get a chance to see Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner, based on the trailer, the movie digs deep to explore the connection a father has with his son and the faith needed to rise above the facts to find the truth. The most spiritual of them all, the thought-provoking, yet heavily amateurish Little Boy, explores much the same territory, but instead of a father searching for his son in the middle of a war, the son reaches out to bring his father home from the war with nothing but faith the size of a mustard seed.
The title character of Little Boy, Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), is given the moniker by a group of bullies who feel his size (based on an undiagnosed disease that may be dwarfism) hinders him in some way. It’s just one of many ways the film addresses the challenges of being different at the end of World War II. Receiving the same type of treatment by the adults in the small community is Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese American who has been released from a nearby interment camp and is simply trying to regain the life that was taken from him because of the war. When Pepper is advised to befriend Hashimoto to help in his quest to build enough faith to bring his missing father (Michael Rapaport) home, the two of them form a bond that goes beyond simple friendship.
But it doesn’t start out that way. As most people did during the war, Pepper hates the Japanese and can’t see past his race to find the human being underneath. In a way, Pepper starts out the film as a bully toward that which he doesn’t understand, just as he is being bullied for being different. It’s a nice dichotomy that would have been much more powerful if the entire subplot didn’t feel like a mere distraction. Seeing as how this topic is very relevant today as we continue to fight extremist Muslims across the globe, there is a kernel of some incredibly powerful ideas waiting to nourished. But writer/director Alejandro Monteverde doesn’t utilize the power of the pen to explore this beyond superficial topics. There is a scene in which Pepper invites Hashimoto over for lunch that is quite compelling with its quiet sensibility and regretful horror, but when Pepper’s brother, London (David Henrie), nearly shoots Hashimoto for even stepping foot in his home, it feels as if there could have been so much more weight added to give it a pinch more honesty.
The reason for this is due to the inconsistent storytelling style, which leans more toward innocent and childish than real and sincere. Which makes complete sense, seeing as how we’re trying to connect with a young boy who is going through his own existential transformation. The problem is, when you catch glimpses of a more adult, mature voice, you want to latch on to that sensibility and it makes the immaturity of the rest of the film become that much more glaring. In one terrific moment, Pepper is antagonized into proving he has enough faith to move a mountain. As he’s performing the routine he learned when he was asked to assist his idol (Ben Chaplin) move a bottle, an earthquake occurs, making it seem as if he actually moved the mountain. The sequence opens up a lot of existential questions regarding science versus faith, in that he may not have moved the mountain, but is it simply a coincidence that the earthquake happened at that exact moment? Or is there something much bigger in play to help give Pepper — and the community — the faith they need to make anything possible? This scene is juxtaposed with any of the scenes involving the bullies, which feel so generically cheap and sterotypical, as if they are pulled from any Disney or Nickelodeon television show rather than pulled from actual experiences.
There’s also a glaring inconsistency in the story arcs that deliver most of the drama. Either they are resolved far too quickly or have a climax but no clear resolution (or at the very least, an unsatisfying one). The bully subplot is given a rousing climax, only to see the story completely dropped afterward without any sense that anything really changed for Pepper (or that he changed in some way because of it). At the same time, it seems as if there are a scene or two missing as we watch London change his view with the snap of a finger without ever exploring why this change happens (even though the circumstances give us at least a modicum of groundwork). And then there’s the odd cameo by Kevin James as the local doctor who has a unhealthy crush on Pepper’s mother (Emily Watson). The whole thing feels extremely creepy, and it’s given a decent resolution, but still has a way of feeling incomplete (though James, as I mentioned in my review of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, is still as watchable, funny and likeable as ever).
The main theme of the film is in order for miracles to happen, and for God to answer your prayers, you must not have any anger inside of you, and you must believe that anything is possible so long as you believe in yourself. And though Salvati does a pretty good job displaying the emotional gamut he’s asked to portray, there’s still a sense that he’s still very green and because of that, the most humanistic qualities of the film are lost among the unbalanced way the story is told, leading to a profound film that settles for kid-friendly lightheartedness over true, unique thoughtfulness.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you would like to see a review of this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.