Movie Review/Movies/My Culture/Teen Culture

Catholic Movie Reviews: Little Boy


MPAA Rating

Life Teen Rating

Is It Cool?: Excellence in Filmmaking

Skipping the awkward adolescence that often afflicts sophomore directing efforts, writer/director Alejandro Monteverde (Bella) leaps straight to maturity with the memorable and challenging Little Boy. It has the facade of a family movie of the week, but the depth and thoughtfulness of an artist who understands the power of the medium to invite emotion from an audience without demanding it. It sneaks up on you; but takes no shortcuts to earn its payoff.

Pepper Busbee is the “Little Boy”—a refreshingly authentic performance by newcomer Jakob Salvati—who’s constantly picked on by his peers for being short. His loving and imaginative father James—a surprisingly warm Michael Rappaport—is the only one who makes Pepper feel big enough be important. Their play-adventures together mean the world to them both, so when Uncle Sam comes knocking for James’ help to fight Word War II (the older son London being rejected because of flat feet), Pepper is only left with emptiness and fear.

Through a chance encounter with famous traveling magician, Pepper begins to believe that he has been granted special powers to bring his father home. In a wonderful scene demonstrating true pastoral wisdom and sensitivity, Pepper seeks out the guidance of Fr. Oliver in order to apply his newfound “powers” to the task at hand. Fr. Oliver—the perpetual perfecting casting choice of Tom Wilkinson—explains to Pepper that with faith as small as a mustard seed he can move mountains. But faith must be strived for, so Fr. Oliver gives Pepper task list in which he must apply the Beatitudes of Jesus to real life situations.

Standing in his way is his bitter older brother London—a strong, dramatic turn by David Henrie—who belittles Pepper’s faith and feels it his duty to return him to reality.

There is also an undercurrent of racism that has gripped the town. The Japanese are despised and mistrusted and one of Pepper’s tasks is to become friends with the local target of the town’s hatred Hashimoto—a dignified and endearingly prickly Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Busbee family friend Sam—played by the always imposing Ted Levine—further stokes the racist fires in the town and drags along London for the ride.

Meanwhile, the always-good-for-a laugh Kevin James as Dr. Fox futilely pursues the affections of Pepper’s mother Emma—a graceful but commanding Emily Watson. James has a smaller role than usual, but the restrained comic relief is most welcome.

The cinematography successfully evokes Norman Rockwell. The apparent attempt was to ironically contrast the “perfect” town with the dark and complex themes of the narrative. But it feels like the wrong look for such a substantive film.

Monteverde’s directing is only outdone by his writing. The script is very strong. And with some more time behind the directing wheel don’t be surprised to see Monteverde navigate more complex waters with even more grace and subtlety.

But make no mistake; Little Boy has made Monteverde a serious filmmaker. And it might be the most important “Catholic-made” film since The Passion of The Christ.

What’s it Saying?: Message of the Movie

The most obvious message is about the power of faith. Faith can accomplish seemingly impossible things. And faith can be grown though selfless works.

There is a strong anti-racism theme; and the importance of family is clearly emphasized.

Just War Theory (CCC 2309) also comes up in relation to the use of the atomic bomb and the Catholic view of this is strongly upheld.

*Spoiler Alert*
The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima plays an significant role in the plot. Although the historical reality of the bomb’s role in ending the war is mentioned, the emotional context and resulting narrative threads strongly suggest that this horrific act occurred without full justification required by Just War Theory in the Catholic Church. Some reviewers have suggested that the dropping of the bomb is the “miracle” that Pepper had be waiting for to bring his father home–suggesting that God answered Pepper’s prayers directly through such a travesty. This interpretation is a mistake. Although the film’s point of view is perhaps overly subtle in this regard (and the narrative struggles a bit to tie its final threads together), there is clearly no endorsement of the bomb.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Morality in the Movie

This is a challenging and emotional film that might be appropriate for middle-schoolers with their parents’ discretion. Nothing is morally objectionable. But there is a great deal of contextual violence, racist dialogue, and intense thematic elements. This is not a film for young children.

That's Right. I Said It: Reviewer Comments

I’m immediately drawn in by this movie’s effortless charm.

Little pepper is so endearing. Great first-time performance!

Tom Wilkinson plays everybody’s favorite priest.

Kevin James makes me laugh even when he’s not doing anything.

I’m crying already?

Yup, I’m crying.

Hashimoto’s performance is my favorite.

Okay, my heart has been stolen by this film.

And . . . I’m crying again.

About the Author

Ryan O'Connell

After a hard day of work, I look forward to a little exercise, some blues guitar, and a moving-picture creation by my ex-employer and fickle lover, Hollywood. I’m also a fan of basketball, sketch comedy, and vigorously defending my beliefs using this academic gimmick called “truth.” God has blessed me with the most loyal friends a guy could ask for, and a disturbing inability to not laugh at stupid jokes.

Want to write for Life Teen? Click Here to learn more.