“A desperately cloying moviegoing experience.”

by Steve Pulaski

This time last year, we were granted with Heaven is for Real, a miserably schmaltzy film that was so overwrought in its intentions and portrayal of emotions that it easily merited a spot on my list for the worst films of the year. This year, however, we have Little Boy, one of the first faith-based films of the year along with Do You Believe?, a film that will likely earn a place on this year’s list. Films like this should insult the audience, if they are smart enough to know they are being condescended to through the use of soft-lighting and cinematography, an overbearing musical score that lets them know when they should feel happy and sad, and sole lines and sequences desperately made to extract tears from the audience who are temporarily blindsided by the fact that these particular events exists so far outside the ballpark of reality it’s playing a different game.

Little Boy concerns an America that’s plunged in a tumultuous period; World War II’s impact and scope is growing, the army needs more soldiers and young men on the frontlines, families are being separated for indefinite periods of time, and Japanese citizens are just being released from internment camps, causing civil unrest. We focus on the Busbee family, particularly Pepper (Jakob Salvati), a stout seven-year-old who is the subject of bullying for his short stature. Despite this, he finds a great connection with his imaginative father James (Michael Rapaport), until he is called to fight in Hiroshima, leaving Pepper with his mother (Emily Watson) and his heavy-drinking older brother London (David Henrie).

Little Boy
Directed by
Alejandro Monteverde
Jakob Salvati, Emily Watson, David Henrie
Release Date
24 April 2015
Steve’s Grade: D-

During this time, Pepper seeks out ways to exercise and strengthen his personal faith, which a Reverend informs him could help bring his father back. However, this result will only occur if his faith is strong enough. Pepper loves magicians, particularly the great Ben Eagle, who calls him on stage during one of his shows to move a soda bottle. Eagle informs Pepper that the only way to do it is to have incorruptible faith and even the slightest shred of doubt – easily brought on by a crowd full of ridiculing children Pepper’s age – will prohibit the bottle from being moved. After a lot of grunting and screaming on Pepper’s part, the bottle moves, and Pepper believes the stronger his faith gets, the more likely his father will be brought back home safe and sound. During his journey of self-discovery, he meets Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), an ostracized Japanese man who also helps him recognize his faith.

The level of frothiness in this film cannot be accurately stated. Scenes carry immense artificial weight to them, bathing themselves in beautiful scenery and loud and obvious musical numbers that cast blatant moods of either “happy” or “sad” unto the audience. Throw in Salvati’s innocent face, his perfectly combed blonde hair, and his teary-eyed plea for his father to stay home, and you have precisely the kind of emotional sentimentality I hate. Not a single moment in Little Boy is genuine, as it all feels conjured up through deliberately facile means of exploiting the audience’s emotional complexes. This, in turn, making them think they’ve seen a good film when they’ve really just been played for fools.

Shedding tears to a film is something I’m no stranger of; I’ve probably done it more than a great deal of my peers to films that didn’t even upset them. If a film can extract emotion from the audience, that means it has made them care about the characters on screen through numerous different things, including acting, directing, and writing. It’s a powerful thing, and when it happens to you, you’re almost surprised at yourself. However, Little Boy is going for the easily extractable tears. Its emotion comes from the aesthetics and how they manipulate the viewer and not from the characters or the situations themselves. Here, scenes beg weeping and other scenes beg you to have an ear-to-ear smile; nothing is subtle, nothing is left to the imagination.

The film’s tagline is “Believe the impossible,” which is fitting because that’s the only way one will receive much enjoyment from this film. Watching a seven-year-old stand before an enormous mountain and eventually come to move it through his faith may be a cute idea in theory, but to watch it happen, in a film that desperately wants you to believe what cannot be done regardless of how much faith a person has among countless other manipulative filmmaking strategies, makes for a desperately cloying moviegoing experience.

NOTE: Take a second look at the title while you’re at it; recall high school history class if you must. It doesn’t just mean what you think it means, and because of that, it adds one more frightening element to this film.