Did you know there's a new family-audience feature film that implies God nuked Japan because one plucky American moppet dared to dream? That's no exaggeration. In the summer of 1945, the kid stands on a California dock, points his fingers magician-style at the Pacific horizon, and screams a series of prayerful arghs in his efforts to perform some war-ending miracle. He's trying to move Heaven and Earth to get his father home from a POW camp; the movie confoundingly intercuts the dad's capture and torture with the son's being tossed by small-town bullies into a dumpster.
The kid prays and arghs until the filmmakers, gauche and monstrous, cue up a jubilant "This Little Light of Mine" for the payoff to a gag you will have dreaded since learning that the film is called Little Boy and that "Little Boy" is its small-fry hero's nickname. One morning his neighbors are dancing in the street, and the headline in the local paper credits "Little Boy" with de facto ending the war. That God, always eager to smite foreign cities if you just believe!
Examinations of faith on film don't have to be noxious. This spring, a welcome restoration of René Clément's 1952 jewel Forbidden Games will hit screens. That's an honest film about children's faith and trauma in World War II, one about the ways that ritual can help us persevere through loss. But Little Boy is produced by the dude who invented the game show Survivor. It's fitted for an era in which finding the faith that might sustain just isn't uplifting enough — despite the fact that's the only thing faith can actually do. Instead, the faith of Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is a superpower: This comic-book devotee hears the verse from Matthew where Jesus proclaims that with faith the size of a mustard seed, a believer can move a mountain.
Pepper takes that literally, in the newish evangelical tradition, and sets himself to the task of believing with such force and purity that God will end the war and spirit his father home. At a magic show at the local movie house, Pepper is tricked into believing he has some talent for telekinesis; a couple of reels later, wouldn't you know it, he's in the town square, taunted by bullies and his brother, London (David Henrie), terrible people who don't believe what the shrimpiest kid they know is saying about belief and mustard seeds. His brother gets the where's-your-messiah-now? routine: London points to a nearby mountain and dares Little Boy to move it.
Pepper points to it, arghs gratingly, and then, after much juiced-up tension, the movie stages an earthquake.
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"Believe the impossible," the film's poster implores, a Hollywood rewrite of Kierkegaard and the surest of all recipes for disappointment. Still, Little Boy attempts to maintain some plausible deniability regarding its miracles. That earth-shaking could be a coincidence! It even labors to convince us it isn't claiming that Heaven sanctioned the leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Pepper dreams he walks through a bombed-out city, and he sees a family shaped from ash — a reminder that the deaths of millions isn't Easter-morning sunny. The kid is also tasked by his preacher (Tom Wilkinson) with befriending his town's only Japanese man (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), but only after committing a jolly hate crime against him. However, Little Boy only feints toward rationality.
The acting is often good, all picture-book earnestness, but director Alejandro Monteverde seems restless despite having cowritten the script. He finds many excuses to mount fantasy sequences that seem to come from movies he would prefer to be making: a pastiche of cliffhanger serials, a miserable kung fu showdown, a CGI disaster flick. The small-town movie theater's marquee constantly reminds us that films used to be better than this: The Grapes of Wrath, The 39 Steps, and on and on. That's distracting, but it's evidence, at least, that the principals involved have at some point in their lives seen a film worth seeing.
I'm going to spoil the ending. The kid who never doubted is vindicated. The father, long presumed dead, comes home, well after his own funeral, just when the family he's left is learning to persevere — and just moments after his bereaved wife (the great Emily Watson, bless her soul) makes clear that she's too pure and grand a woman to ever remarry. This marks a new low in movie miracles. Faith here isn't something private that might nurture us through this world's cruel caprices; it's a promise that everything will work out, that a Superman-God will spin the world backward for you.
Imagine a real child of today who has lost a parent in America's desert campaigns. Imagine that child puffed up on Little Boy and its ilk, praying, hurting, maybe shouting argh! Imagine that child taking to heart the lesson of this cynical, poisonous, deeply stupid film: If the miracle fails to come, he must not have believed enough.