Filmmakers have been manipulating moviegoers' emotions since the beginning of this art form. However, rarely has one film been so patently blatant in those efforts than "Little Boy".
Jakob Salvati stars as Pepper Flint Busbee, a.k.a. Little Boy, due to his diminutive stature. It's appalling to me that the entire town of O'Hare, California takes up this hateful moniker, bestowed upon Pepper by the school bullies, and actually calls him by that "nickname".
But, for me, most of the film is worthless. Pepper has no friends --- even his older brother, London (David Henrie) is indifferent to him. His best friend --- or partner --- is his father, James (Michael Rapaport), and when he is shipped off to fight the "Japs" (another loathsome term) in World
War II, Pepper is left all alone, and heartbroken.
Awakened to the power of faith by his local pastor, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), Pepper embarks on a faith-filled journey to bring his father home from the war safe and sound.
Though "Little Boy" is filled with breathtaking vistas of gorgeous sunsets upon the placid Pacific Ocean, there is little depth to the screenplay by Pepe Portillo and Alejandro Monteverde, who also directs. We are lectured and schooled on the injustices of bullying, whether pertaining to the youngsters in school, or their parents harassing the one local Japanese resident, Hashimoto (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa), who reluctantly becomes friends with Pepper.
Salvati is darling --- and an excellent crier. He also sports the most fashionable collection of flat caps ever seen on a little boy in movies. But after the 80th hang-dog look with big sad eyes --- which is not his fault, he didn't write this saccharine script --- I was ready to pack it in.
There are a few touching moments. One has Father Oliver realizing he may have sold Pepper a bill of goods. Hashimoto questions him about the consequences of Pepper's father not returning from the war.
The best written relationship is the one between Father Oliver and Hashimoto, with Wilkinson redeeming himself after his awful outing in "Unfinished Business". He and Hiroyuki-Tagawa are old school pros, and manage not to overplay the schmaltz. Had it not been for their performances "Little Boy" would be a total bomb.
Henrie is brutal --- even when he's supposed to be brutal. I realize the dialogue is, at best, challenging, but he brings no warmth to his portrayal, especially during the final scenes of the film, which should have been the most touching.
And why Kevin James, who appears briefly as the widower Dr. Fox and the father of the obese bully, is given a top billing, is beyond comprehension. He adds absolutely nothing to this movie, and his character is as cartoonish as the one he plays in those mall movies.
Monteverde has certainly taken a page out of Terrence Malick's director's manual. Much like "The Tree of Life" (2011), he could have ended "Little Boy" 20 times in the last 20 minutes. Unfortunately, as egos sometimes prevail, this film went on endlessly --- and unnecessarily.
Opinion: Don't Bother!
Pepper Busbee, dubbed "little boy" by bullies because of his small size for his age, has an intensely close relationship with his father, James. Almost at the exclusion of his much older brother London (David Henrie), Pepper and his dad do everything together. Even Pepper's mother Emma (Emily Watson) takes a back seat to her husband when it comes to her younger son. But when London tries to enlist in the army after the Pearl Harbor bombing, he is rejected for having flat feet, so James (Michael Rapaport) feels compelled to join the military instead. Will Pepper ever see his beloved father again?
"Little Boy" is shamelessly sentimental, highly manipulative and wears out its welcome, albiet by a scant few minutes. It could have ended sooner than it did and still have the same impact. Yet despite all that, I still enjoyed the film, for the most part, thanks to an endearing performance by its young star, Jakob Salvati.
Our packed screening audience was totally absorbed, at least judging by the absence of any talking, and folks applauded at the end, which doesn't always happen. I reluctantly admit to having a rather sizeable lump in my throat as the mostly predictable conclusion runs its course. Co-writer and director Alejandro Monteverde manages to pluck at our heartstrings, and uses extreme close-ups of his stars to ensure we know what they're feeling. Still, the movie has a variety of flaws that critics will be hard-pressed to overlook. I suspect that general audiences will be more forgiving.
We're not entirely sure when James enters the army. Pearl Harbor was 1941, and it appears he enlists not long after. But --- SPOILER ALERT --- we witness the actual end of the war in 1945. Yet Pepper never ages in that four-year span, creating a sizeable credibility gap. And it seems ludicrous for James to want to join the military in the first place --- unless he was ordered to by the government --- given the family for which he must provide.
At the crux of the story is Pepper's relationship with Hashimoto, a Japanese-American man who is persecuted by most of the citizenry
in their small California town. The prevailing attitude at the time was that all Japanese are to be reviled based on the cowardly attack at Pearl Harbor. In this film, Sam (Ted Levine), who lost his son there, naturally and unfairly blames Hashimoto (Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa, a veteran of over 120 TV and movie roles). And London is equally adamant about despising the "Japs" he is not allowed to fight.
American moviegoers love to root for the underdog, and in "Little Boy"
there are two of them. It is obvious and inevitable that the picked-upon Pepper and the embattled Hashimoto, who have something in common, should become friends.
Emily Watson, always a pleasure on screen, abandons her British accent for the role of Emma, and she is perfectly adequate as the grieving wife who copes with the unknown fate of her husband. Tom Wilkinson plays Father Oliver who just happens to be good friends with Hashimoto, and the only person in town to treat him with respect until Pepper comes along.
Still, there is that nagging awareness throughout "Little Boy" that Pepper never gets any older. Other films at least attempt to cast different actors for these situations, but that is not the case here. I realize that replacing Salvati with another actor would severely hamper the overall film, but then why didn't the writers compensate for that by changing the timeline?
No matter, little Salvati's earnestness and appeal go a long way in this film. The kid can act, so it's very hard not to like him.
Then there's the odd Dr. Fox who seizes the chance to take a shot at Emma in James' absence. "His Smarminess" is overplayed by none other than Kevin James, who is given top billing in this film for no other reason than to attract his legion of fans. But his role is a small one, and totally unnecessary to the plot.
"Little Boy" will likely be a critical flop, but I believe it will ultimately turn a profit as it finds its audience.
Opinion: Wait for DVD