Little Boy: “100 minutes of rote platitudes”

April 24, 2015

Little Boy
Grade: 70
Cast: Jakob Salvati, Emily Watson, David Henrie, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tom Wilkinson, Michael Rapaport, Ted Levine, Ben Chaplin
Director: Alejandro Monteverde
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material and violence
Running time: 100 minutes

By Dan Lybarger for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood,dirt & angels

Perhaps if I pray fervently, the Almighty, in his infinite mercy, will enable me to forget that I ever saw Little Boy.

Little-Boy-movie-poster_1The strangely misbegotten, but not strange enough, film awkwardly poses hard, adult questions about war, racism and faith through the eyes of a child. It covers some of the same ground that John Boorman and Franco Zeffirelli did in their semi-autobiographical movies Hope and Glory and Tea With Mussolini.

It probably helped that both men were boys during World War II, so the conflict wasn’t an abstract concept for either of them. As a result, Boorman and Zeffirelli remembered the occasional sense of wonder they felt without losing sight of the horror the adults around them felt.

Co-writer and director Alejandro Monteverde is obviously far younger than his predecessors and yet has some ideas that are worth exploring. For example, Little Boy poses the question, “How can God love us when he’s created a world that frustrates us in a brutal, crushing way?”

Monteverde then drops the questions and settles into 100 minutes of rote platitudes, which he delivers with the subtlety of an atomic bomb. The villains in Little Boy are painted with such a wide brush that the film’s call for tolerance seems insincere.

Pepper Flynt Busbee (Jakob Valvati) is stuck with the nickname Little Boy, which he doesn’t like, because he’s, not surprisingly, short for his age. All of the other lads taunt and beat him up because he’s not big enough to defend himself. The sole bright spots in his life are playing with his dad (Michael Rapaport) and following the exploits of magician and serial movie star Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin).

After Pearl Harbor, all the eligible men in his small California town try to enlist, but Little Boy’s cranky, not terribly bright older brother London (David Henrie) is rejected for his flat feet, but their father is sent off to fight. London, who can’t tell one wrench from another, is ill-suited to run the family garage, so life at home isn’t fun anymore.

The town is on edge because Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) has just been released from an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Locals who once gave his ethnicity little thought now resent him, even though he had nothing to do with the Dec. 7 bombing. Only the local priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), treats him with any respect.

The good father forces Little Boy to befriend the understandably standoffish Hashimoto and tells the lad that if he performs some good deeds on an ancient list and believes passionately, God will give him power comparable to what Ben Eagle has in the movies and on stage.

If there is any sign of grace in Little Boy, it’s Wilkinson’s Father Oliver. He’s the sort of wise, compassionate clergyman we’d all like to have leading our congregations. Sadly, the Oscar nominee’s time in the film is limited.

A lot of familiar faces populate the town, including comedian Kevin James, who plays a doctor infatuated with the protagonist’s mother (Emily Watson). Most of these character actors slip in and out without leaving much of an impression.

By focusing on Little Boy’s quest to pray away World War II, the miracles or coincidences in the film seem uncomfortably hollow because they deal with real events. Monteverde seems to acknowledge, “Yeah, Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t that nice for people on the receiving end. But, hey, the whole town thinks it’s a miracle.”

The film extols the virtue of sacrifice, but in the end nothing of consequence is sacrificed, except viewer patience.

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