The best thing that can be said about “Little Boy” is that it has a Norman Rockwell sensibility. Those aren’t my words; the description comes courtesy of producer Eduardo Verástegui, who appeared in a short video introducing a recent screening of the film. But it happens to be true.
Set during World War II in a small California town populated by characters who seemingly have nothing better to do than to look photogenically cornball, the movie is, like a Rockwell painting, a formally well-crafted thing. It’s also pretty much full of baloney. Unlike Rockwell’s art, whose old-fashioned themes — family, faith, patriotism, community — were expressed via the ground truth of human nature, “Little Boy” traffics in cartoonish caricature.
It isn’t just human nature that suffers from the distortion, but the film’s portrayal of God.
Executive produced by Christian impresarios Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (whose most recent collaboration was “Son of God”), “Little Boy” is the story of Pepper (Jakob Salvati), a small child nicknamed “Little Boy” because of his short stature. When his father (Michael Rapaport) goes off to fight the Japanese, Pepper calls upon various powers — prayer, faith, willpower, good deeds and, at one point, magic — to ensure that his dad comes back safe. In the film’s muddy vision, it is some combination of these powers that influences that outcome.
The problem with “Little Boy” (co-written by Pepe Portillo and director Alejandro Monteverde) is this: For every Pepper who is praying that the U.S. defeats Japan, there is almost certainly another child in Japan asking for the opposite. It’s the locker-room conundrum: When opposing sports teams are both praying for the win, to whom will God listen?
The film’s ethics are as confused as its theology. Pepper’s friendship with a Japanese-American immigrant (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, playing a version of “The Karate Kid’s” Mr. Miyagi) runs afoul of the townsfolk’s naked xenophobia — a not uncommon sentiment at the time that the filmmakers seem oddly ambivalent about. Similarly, when the atom bomb, not coincidentally also nicknamed “Little Boy,” is dropped on Hiroshima, the film can’t seem to make up its mind whether this is a good or a bad thing. Scenes of Americans celebrating in the streets are contrasted with horrific images of charred Japanese civilians.
Morality is complicated, yes. But the film comes across as wishy-washy, not nuanced.
There are some big-name actors — Emily Watson as Pepper’s mother, Tom Wilkinson as the town priest — and the performances are, for the most part, decent. But unlike Rockwell, whose staged pictures nevertheless expressed universal truths, “Little Boy” is a as phony as a game of three-card monte.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence and some disturbing images.106 minutes.