The “Christian” movie (heavy lies the emphasis on the parentheses) can be a troublesome one indeed. First of all, a “Christian” movie in Hollywood, by definition, is not to be mistaken with movies that are in fact Christian by their very essence, or have characters, stories, or general themes of Christianity tied within and throughout them. What is meant is the movie that is in fact a Christian movie, made by Christians, for a predominantly Christian audience.
These can sometimes be problematic in their tendencies toward being preachy, cheesy, and trite. Usually their worst offense is that of being non-artful, and rather, created to deliver and impose some kind of message upon their audience. And let’s face it, no one likes to be taught at. When there is a level of emotional manipulation so heavy-handed, it can take away any and all enjoyment of the thing itself.
Think, for example, of a movie like Thérèse: The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Or Left Behind, about the “end times,” loosely based on the biblical book of Revelation. Or the truly revolting film released this year, Old Fashioned, about an allegedly “model” relationship, claiming to be that after which many would (or should) strive.
These three examples are just downright offensive, each to greater and lesser degrees, and they (in the end, however unwittingly) make something of a mockery of the religion they claim to profess as holding so dear, by their outright and unabashed presentation. They make tawdry and cheap the tenants of religion by way of tacky non-art, so that it becomes unappealing either due to lack of talent in various aspects that go into movie-making or simply lack of understanding. When subtlety is lost, artfulness is casually strewn out the window along with it.
Do not be mistaken, Christian movies can have the ability to and do at times succeed, be they as plain-as-day direct as it gets (i.e., about Jesus himself, like the powerful The Passion of the Christ or tremendously well-told Jesus of Nazareth), or more about a Christian story, (like The Mission or Exodus: Gods and Kings). These are tremendous examples of Christian movies done right. They have their message, certainly, but they are focused as well on artful delivery, subtle acting, and exactitude of direction.
Somewhere towards the better end of this spectrum lies Little Boy. Directed by Alejandro Monteverde, Little Boy is far greater than his previous film, Bella. It tells the story of a child who seems to be one down on his luck, and who, without all the love showered upon him by his dear parents, could have turned his back on life and given up. But instead, he’s one of the most charming and confident children in his town. And despite great odds, he holds enough hope and courage in his tiny frame to bolster and raise the spirits of everyone around him.
Pepper Flynt Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is the titular character of the tale, so called by his doctor, Dr. Fox (Kevin James), because he is smaller in stature and physique than average children his age. Apparently neither old enough to be nor quite in the undertstood realm of being officially designated as one with dwarfism, the film simply characterizes him as a “little boy”—also secondarily referencing the nickname of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, during World War II.
Pepper is an optimistic, joyful, and relentless child, (surprisingly un-irritatingly so, due to his genuinely happy gestalt), and the beginning of the film presents his incredibly strong bond he has established with his loving father, James Busbee (Michael Rapaport). Absent of many friends his own age, Pepper and his dad were thick as thieves, and they shared many adventures in make-believe over his formative childhood years. When James enlists to fight in the war, a devastated Pepper finds strength in the Bible verse:
And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” ~Matthew 17:20
Pepper’s hero of the comic books was a magician character names Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin). When he gets to go to his live show, Pepper gets called up to the stage. He summons all the strength of will and might, and with Ben Eagle and the audience watching, he moves a glass from one end of the table, across to his hand. Later on, he stands strong in the town square to “move the mountain” that overlooks the village, to prove to his troublemaker older brother that he can move anything with his faith, as an earthquake happens in their town.
He stands at the banks of the ocean, arms outstretched, and concentrates his hardest on simply willing his father back from overseas. His faith and gumption, however foolhardy, is moving to behold to everyone around who witnesses him.
When he seeks advice from the local priest, Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), on how to actualize this mustard seed of faith in real terms, i.e., to bring his father back, Fr. Oliver instead tries to teach him how to act in smaller ways, to bring about change around him. Fr. Oliver gives Pepper a sheet of paper with the Corporal Works of Mercy listed on them, instructing Pepper to complete them all, on his journey in seeking his father’s return.
Accentuating the heavy racism and anti-Japanese sentiment of the era, the film presents Pepper as an innocent who echoes such attitudes without even realizing it, but simply by being a sponge to societal norms of the era.
Fr. Oliver encourages Pepper to befriend a local Japanese resident in their town, Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and over time, they, incorporating Pepper’s kind-hearted mother, Emma Busbee (Emily Watson) as well, become an example to others of how prejudice is counteracted with love. Hashimoto is met with so much hate everywhere he goes, not the least of which from Pepper’s troublemaker brother London Busbee (David Henrie), that to see Pepper’s gentle, tender way warms the heart of even the most cynical viewer.
Especially poignant, too, is the friendship between a man of faith, Fr. Oliver, and a man of no faith, Hashimoto. Both are treated with respect in a way not entirely expected from a faith-based film.
The film could do with a few less incantations of the derogatory word “Jap,” which is today quite harsh on the ears, but the effect is purposeful and perhaps, in the end, all the more effective in demonstrating people’s ability to change.
In all, there is a certain reticence to be liked against which Little Boy has an uphill battle to fight. It has to prove the whole time that it’s not just another “in your face message movie” that says: “Here! See! This is why you should be a believer! See how good faith and religion and Christianity all are?!” Thankfully, Little Boy is not that movie, and it’s very apparent that the filmmakers have made great efforts to not be that movie. True, it still has certain somewhat manipulative moments that are practically the equivalent of pulling out nose hairs (i.e., if one doesn’t cry at Pepper’s inconceivably big heart and honest, joyful spirit, it’s questionable if one could really be human! That well-cast kid was made to love. Well done, Jakob Salvati).
So, if for no other reason, the sincerity with which his character demonstrates love and courage and faith and joy really brings it all together in a way that leaves one enjoying this movie far more than one initially may have thought, going into the experience of it. And secondary heartfelt performances from seasoned pros like Watson and Wilkinson enhance the picture further to create an overall portrait that turns out quite beautifully, in the end. It’s an enjoyable film. Although it doesn’t sway completely into the realm of fully letting its audience off the hook, it certainly leaves much of the overbearing preaching off the agenda, and it’s all the better for it.
3.5 out of 5 stars.