“Little Boy” is guilty of trying too hard. Had it just focused on a youngster’s heartbreaking efforts to get his father home from World War II, it would have been a touching tale.
Sadly, the story gets bogged down by overly sentimental plot lines such as the bitter bigotry and hatred shown towards Japanese living in the United States during the war, a son’s guilt at not being able to serve his country, never-ending bullying, misguided attempts to woo a possible war widow and the importance of faith.
Hidden in all that clutter is a sweet faith-based story. You just have to patiently wade your way through all the rest to find it.
The “Little Boy” at the heart of the story is Pepper (Jakob Salvati), an 8-year-old who isn’t growing at the same rate as other youngsters. School is tough, but Pepper can always find solace with his father, James (Michael Rapaport), a local mechanic trying to do the right thing by his family and community.
Everyone’s life is thrown into a turmoil when James goes off to war. Pepper is willing to do anything to help get his father home. That includes a list of “must dos” given to him by a local priest (Tom Wilkinson).
This is where “Little Boy” begins to wobble. Director Alejandro Monteverde struggles between making the production faith-based or something as whimsical as a Wes Anderson movie.
Scenes where Pepper befriends a Japanese man resonate deeply with discussions about “love thy neighbor” and how a little faith is needed to live a good life.
The deep messages are presented through very grounded performances by Emily Watson as Pepper’s mom, Ted Levine as the town’s primary bigot, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the Japanese man who must face the town’s hatred and David Henrie as a son dealing with consuming guilt. A wide-eyed Jakob shows solid acting skills as he tries to make his way through the emotional confusion surrounding him.
Then the director flips the movie with outlandish sequences, such as Pepper thinking he moved a mountain using faith or his nickname “Little Boy” being tied to the dropping of the first atomic bomb, also known as Little Boy. Even the pristine design of the small coastal city looks more like the kind of fantasy world Anderson loves so much.
Having Kevin James play the doctor who is pursuing the potential war widow is a casting that’s offbeat enough it takes away from the seriousness of the story. Toss in the doctor’s kid being a bully that looks like he just left the set of “The Little Rascals” and those performances add to the more quirky side of the film.
The cinema schizophrenia distracts from the solid core elements of faith, family and friendship. It’s not enough distraction to cripple the film, but if the movie makers had more faith in their story it would have created a product that moved mountains of moviegoers.