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Little Boy

April 24, 2015
Little Boy

Probably the most interesting part of seeing Little Boy was the impromptu discussion of theology between myself and another critic after the screening. It’s not that the story is particularly deep — it’s really not — but it departs from the vast majority of overtly Christian films in one really notable way. It’s clear that, almost without exception, Christian movies are pretty bad, but this one is specifically a bad Catholic movie rather than a bad Evangelical movie, and yes that seems to make a difference.

The story itself is deep into the same glurgey “family film” mode as The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) stands a single meter tall at eight years old, earning the nickname “Little Boy”, and it’s not a coincidence this is set during World War II. His older brother, London (David Henrie) is turned away by the army for his flat feet — a detail I don’t buy for a second since they were able to find a spot for my grandfather despite the same impediment — and so his father (Michael Rapaport) must go instead, leaving mom (Emily Watson) home with the boys.

When his dad is taken prisoner in the Philippines, Pepper hears a sermon on the Parable of the Mustard Seed, telling him that anything is possible with faith. It’s also the same time as the end of the Japanese internment, which brings one Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to their coastal California town. Pepper follows London to ineptly harass the old man, which lands London in jail and Pepper in the office of Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), who tries to explain the power of faith a little better.

And here’s where the film takes a turn from the normal “y’all need Jesus” mode: Fr. Oliver gives Pepper a list of the corporal works of mercy, telling him that these will help strengthen his faith. And on top of the usual litany — feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead — he adds one more: Pepper must befriend Mr. Hashimoto.

Now, the schism between justification by works and justification sola fide is a deep and messy one that I’m not nearly expert enough to get into here, but it does make for a real difference in how these movies get made. The usual formula from Evangelical movies basically has someone living in a state of sin until they finally turn to Jesus, at which point everything is okay. It’s a really boring and predictable story that appeals to pretty much nobody except those who already buy into it.

But throw works into the mix and now you have something like an arc. Pepper starts out just as racist as his brother, but working through his list gives him a growing appreciation for the humanity of the Other. And Hashimoto is a true Good Samaritan, showing Pepper greater kindness than anyone else in town.

None of which ultimately excuses the saccharine tone, the vaseline-smeared lens, or the truly bad taste in nicknaming the lead moppet after the weapon that levels the city that — it’s heavily suggested — was his new friend’s former hometown. It’s heavy-handed and manipulative, and it wants to wring out deep sorrows before taking them all back to deliver a happy ending all around. It’s at about the same emotional level as one of producer Roma Downey’s old Touched by an Angel episodes. But, I have to admit, it wasn’t quite as bad as most Christian movies.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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