This home-front family drama of hope, friendship, and faith, shot through the sepia-tinged light and faded hues of nostalgia, is part of a new trend. Faith-based movies are increasingly breaking out of niche theaters and into wide release. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, prior stewards of The Bible and Son of God, are executive producers of Little Boy, directed by Alejandro Monteverde in a Norman Rockwell-style 1940s California seaside village (actually created in Mexico).
Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is the adorable 7-year-old whose stunted growth makes him look like either a sophisticated toddler or a juvenile understudy for The Wizard of Oz’s Lollipop Guild. His fun-loving dad (Michael Rapaport) is a POW being held by the Japanese, so Pepper—nicknamed “Little Boy” because of his inexplicable size—undertakes a mission of good deeds to please God and bring Dad safely home. You know the story: The earnest, comic-book-crazy kid takes Bible parables literally, and his hometown odyssey gives him strength, inspires the townsfolk, and makes everyone believe in miracles. Oh, and Little Boy also overcomes racism, when Pepper befriends Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the elderly Japanese man shunned by all save the local priest (Tom Wilkinson, picking up a few days’ work as the town’s worldly-wise conscience).
Little Boy is tonally uneven, jumping from hate-crime violence to sentimental scenes that may cause insulin shock. Once the film’s bullies and bigots serve their dramatic purpose, they all but disappear. Meanwhile the creepy undercurrent of affable town doctor Kevin James’ inappropriate attentions to Pepper’s mom (Emily Watson) is just shrugged off. But the biggest frustration with Little Boy is how—as so many religious dramas do—it simply rewards innocent faith with miracles, rather than exploring how it can console troubled individuals and pull communities together. Just because a prayer isn’t answered doesn’t make it less valuable.
Still, Little Boy wears its halo lightly, forgoing sanctimony and sermons. Which is great for secular audiences who, rather than movies strewn with sex and foul language, may prefer films wrapped in nostalgia, sentiment, and heartwarming affirmation. If it were less precious and a little smarter (clever historical twists carry the film only so far), it might even have had a chance here in godless Seattle.
LITTLE BOY Opens Fri., April 24 at Oak Tree and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes.