From Burnet/Downey (The Bible Miniseries) and Eduardo Verástegui (Bella) comes Little Boy, a heartwarming World War II saga about the power of childlike faith. I think everything from the synopsis to the names behind the picture give away that this isn't a movie shooting for existential high art. Yet the film, for all of its unapologetic sentimentality, does manage to touch on relevant topics related to being human and faith.
Set at the height of World War II, the movie follows a vertically challenged boy, Pepper (Jakob Salvati), whose father (Michael Rapaport) is shipped off to war. Often bullied for his diminutive size, Pepper doesn't have friends, and being deprived of his close relationship with his father leaves quite a void. Enter the movie's heavy theme of faith. When Pepper is able to "move" a bottle at a magic show (even if it is clear to us it's just part of the trick), he's awakened to potential "powers."
Luckily, the movie doesn't veer into a male take on Matilda. Instead, Pepper's parish priest gives appropriate context to the power of faith. It isn't anything within ourselves that is behind what faith can do, but rather that God is the mover and our faith is the intercession for Him to move. The parable of the mustard seed serves as a major motif in the movie. Taking the mustard seed as literal at first, Pepper is soon shown that the seed only represents the potential of the faith within us, and that wonderful things can happen if we grow our faith. Given a list of the Corporal Works of Mercy (with one added specifically for him), Pepper is told that this list will help him grow his faith, but only if he's able to take all hatred out of his heart. This plays out in Pepper befriending an ostracized Japanese man.
The movie travels a relatively familiar road. Some moments strike out a little bit, such as an earthquake occurring in conjunction with Pepper meeting his older brother's challenge to move a mountain. And while the moviegoer in me is happy at the ultimate outcome of the movie, the inner writer and critic also can't help but wonder if the theme could've been bolder (albeit darker) if the movie's final few minutes were less Hollywoodized. However, I saw the film with my mother, and she was relieved it ended like it did. So for a life-affirming family romp, the route they took works, demonstrating that predictability doesn't always relate to lower quality.
The film, fittingly enough, takes a bit of an elementary parable approach to the role of good actions in the development of faith. I'd have liked to see things taken deeper, maybe having Pepper go more clearly beyond doing good works to get something out of it (in this case, the safe return of his father). Then again, Pepper is just a kid. It isn't totally unreasonable that the lesson fit his age.
In a time where Christianity is more and more becoming a state of mind people think they can just wear like a hat without any profound redirection of their lifestyle choices, this is still a refreshing start towards something more. So many faith-based movies aim to be little else than affirmation of Evangelical Christianity. Little Boy, on the other hand, encourages us to grow our faith through good works. Instead of falling into the trap of creating some dichotomy between earning salvation and passive belief, the movie strives to live out the message of James 2:18: "I will show you my faith by my deeds." I definitely found this movie's somewhat more organic approach refreshing next to other recent faith-based endeavors.
Rightly promoted to the Christian market, the movie's vision of Christian life is extremely encouraging and praiseworthy. However, its themes of faith can resonate with any group willing to hear it out. We so often hear of "faith like a child," but I think this movie goes about showing that it's not only some mindless belief in some "imaginary friend," but rather an active decision to deepen that belief in active ways, requiring one to return to the innocence of childhood.
Perhaps the movie aims (and succeeds, consequently) to appeal to a broader audience a bit too much, and this is the reason for a somewhat muddled theological approach. Yet, the movie doesn't want to beat viewers over the head with a Bible. Instead, it invites them with just that little mustard seed to discover for themselves the power of faith (in my opinion, a more effective approach).
Solid supporting performances by Emily Watson, among others, help make the movie consistently watchable. Young Jakob Salvati is appropriately charming and naïve as the titular character. He's believable and likable, which is more than enough to resonate in the role he's been given. Given the stilted performances expected from a "faith based production," Little Boy is miles above status quo. It's not going to crash awards ceremonies, but neither does it utilize subpar performances.
Here is a satisfying, family-friendly flick that doesn't have to scrape by on "it's Christian so we support it" sentiment. It's not perfect, and you won't necessarily walk away with some newfound grasp on deep theological questions. But you may just find a story to melt your heart, make you cry a little and give you and your children something to watch together and talk about later.
With a childlike look at what it means to grow faith through Christlike works, the movie is a beacon in a sea of problematic cinematic shipwrecks. With solid and likable performances all around, the minor flaws that are there feel pointless to dwell on. If you're able to enjoy the schmaltzy but heartfelt tone and don't mind going through a box or two of Kleenex, Little Boy is a touching and rewarding beginning to an exploration of faith in action.
J.J. Francesco is an aspiring fiction writer who enjoys Christian rock, good movies and TV, good food, and good company.