The title of Alejandro Monteverde’s World War II fable was, of course, the code name of one of the atomic devices dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, so it’s appropriate that the movie should be a different sort of bomb. Terribly earnest and earnestly terrible, “Little Boy” wants to be a parable of the power of forgiveness and faith, but is so insufferably cloying that it’s difficult to keep from scoffing at it. Its theological implications are also really weird.
The story is set in the little town of O’Hare, California where seven-year old Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is the smallest kid around, such a shrimp that local Doc Fox (Kevin James) is talking about possible dwarfism. As such he’s bullied mercilessly, especially by Fox’s son Freddy (Matthew Miller). Thankfully Pepper has a buddy in his father James (Michael Rapaport), a mechanic helped in his work by volatile older son London (David Henrie). James and Pepper share boys’ adventures together, gleaned from comic books and movie serials like those featuring Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin), a magician who’s also a crime-fighter.
The plot kicks in when London tries to volunteer for army service but is rejected for flat feet, leading James to go off in his place. Word soon arrives that James is MIA in the Philippines, and while wife Emma (Emily Watson) prays for his safety, even as a POW, London can’t control his anger, which is fed by local troublemaker Sam (Ted Levine), whose son was among the dead at Pearl Harbor. Their hatred is directed at Hashimoto (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa), the only Japanese-American in town, and is shared by Pepper, now without any protection from Freddy and his pals. There’s a moment of peace when he’s chosen by Ben Eagle, who comes to town for a live appearance, to join his act on stage and receive supernatural powers to move objects at will—an ability he hopes might be useful in bringing his father home. But Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), the kindly parish priest, tells him that the real power is God’s, and Pepper might move Him to act by performing charitable acts (the seven corporal works of mercy, in Catholic terminology)—most notably by befriending Hashimoto, a task that Pepper undertakes reluctantly, especially since it will bring him contempt from the townsmen, and London in particular.
Much of the film is devoted to the budding relationship between Pepper and Hashimoto, who aids the boy in fulfilling the various tasks that Father Oliver has assigned him. And though Hashimoto doesn’t go quite so far as to teach Pepper martial arts by having him remove the slur painted on his car, he does encourage him to stand up like a samurai against his tormentor—which leads him to clock Freddy with his lunch pail—after which the younger Fox promptly disappears from the narrative entirely, even though his widower dad keeps trying to hit on Emma, whom he resumes is now an eligible widow. Incident is piled on incident—Hashimoto is predictably attacked by London and Sam, for example (which conveniently allows Pepper to fulfill the injunction to visit the jailed and the sick).
The oddest aspects of the script, however, have to deal with Pepper’s supposed telekinetic ability, which is confirmed for the credulous townsmen when London’s demand that his brother move a nearby mountain happens to coincide with a minor earthquake. That leads Pepper to attempt using the power across the sea all the way to Japan to bring the war to an end and his father home; and when the nuclear Little Boy does the job, O’Hare’s version is hailed by the riotous denizens as being behind the deed (which certainly puts Father Oliver’s “hand of God” explanation in a rather odd theological light).
But the film isn’t finished there. James is reported to have died in an attempt to escape a Japanese internment camp in the last stages of the war, and a memorial service brings the whole town out to mourn him (including Hashimoto, recently recovered from the attack on him). But of course writers Monteverde and Pepe Portillo, who have gone to every length to hammer home their messages about the power of faith up to this point, whatever the cost in logical or religious terms, can’t be satisfied with such a downbeat close, and employ an absurd narrative twist to contrive a happy—and supposedly uplifting—ending.
As a religious parable, “Little Boy” is pretty goofy; as a movie it’s simply inept. To be fair, Bernardo Trujillo’s period production design, the sets by Jay Aroesty and Jorge Barba and the costumes by Laura Jean Shannon and Rebecca Gregg are quite good, given the exigencies of what must have been a modest budget. But Andrew Cadelago’s cinematography renders them all in over-bright compositions. (And the sequences purporting to show clips for the Ben Eagle serials are atrocious. The Republic efforts of the forties might have been bargain-basement affairs, but they never looked this bad.)
Among the cast, veterans Watson, Wilkinson and Tagawa bring a note of dignified restraint to the proceedings, and Henrie brings a hint of complexity to London. (James tries hard to appear serious, but is little more successful at it than Jackie Gleason was.) But the rest of the actors are encouraged to mug badly, from Levine as London’s hotheaded friend to Abraham Benrubi as the mentally-challenged guy who lives in the Busbee garage and even Rapaport as the solicitous father. Miller in particular chews the scenery to the utmost. Worst of all, Salvati, who’s rarely offscreen, is cute but totally at sea, hesitant and unable to carry off his big moments, like an emotional breakdown at his dad’s funeral.
But it’s hard to imagine that anybody could have carried off such a misguided piece of religious pabulum. Sincere but silly, “Little Boy” bungles its good intentions in a welter of mixed signals and mangled messages.