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Monday, February 15, 2016

Little Boy

Yes, I believe that I can do this!” is the mantra of this endearing film about the power of a childlike faith to move insurmountable obstacles. 

More fantasy than drama, Little Boy reveals how hatred, prejudice, hard-heartedness, and the gloomiest of outcomes can be overcome by a true, dogged belief. The film is wonderfully directed by Alejandro Monteverde and executive produced by husband and wife team, Roma Downy and Mark Burnett, who have brought a number of Christian stories to television and the big screen, most notably the TV drama, AD the Bible. 


Jakob Salvati stars as the adorable eight-year-old  Pepper Busbee who is devastated that his beloved father, James (Michael Rapaport), has been shipped off to fight the Japanese during WWII, leaving his mother, Emma (Emily Watson), and 4F-ed brother, London (David Henrie), at home to man the family business. Because he has been taught to have faith for any and everything, Pepper firmly believes that his father will return home alive, even after receiving news that he is missing in action and presumably dead.


Pepper’s pint size has earned him the nickname “Little Boy,” but what he lacks in stature is more than made up in his giant-sized determination to believe his father back from the war. Encouraged by a local magician, Ben-Eagle, and his eerie magic act, Pepper concludes that he can extend his fingers into the sky, grunt like a woman giving birth, and will his faith into any situation.


But as Pepper learns, the will of God does not operate like a supernatural magic act. When his father fails to return home, Pepper consults his local priest, Father Oliver (a great performance by Tom Robinson), who gives him some good lessons on raw, Christian faith. While Father Oliver acknowledges the Bible’s promise that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, he tempers this spiritual lesson with a requirement that Pepper work on his hardened heart; before a miracle can be expected, Pepper must first display the love of God by giving to others. In particular, Father Oliver charges him to show kindness to a local Japanese man, Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who is the brunt of ruthless persecution from the embittered town folk. As the sting of death is felt throughout the community, hatred for the Japanese has reached a boiling point, resembling the evils from the lynch mobs that roamed the South during segregation. Pepper has learned first hand from his brother how to loath these foreign people for taking his daddy away. Anger, course language, and murderous violence threaten to rip what is left of his family apart and poison his very soul.


Reluctantly, Pepper obeys Father Oliver’s plan and performs a rash of good deeds for Hishimoto, slowly befriending the old man. Even though he is chastised by London and his friends and practically labeled a traitor, Pepper cannot risk not doing everything he can to bring his father home. In retaliation, the local bullies step up their harassment, but in an unexpected moment,  Hishimoto comes to Pepper’s rescue, proving that true friendship transcends race and ethnicity. In a Karate Kid/Mr. Miyagi moment, Hishimoto teaches Pepper how to see himself as a powerful warrior despite his small size. Essentially, where Pepper’s father has taught him unadulterated faith, Hashimoto teaches Pepper how to take that faith and wield it like a sword.


Pepper’s belief is put to the test when London publically challenges him to literally move a lone, tall mountain that looms in the California skyline.  True to form, Pepper extends his hands toward the mountain, grunts like a madman, and miraculously the ground begins to tremble as an earthquake shakes the town. The public is divided in their opinion as to whether Pepper’s faith was to blame, but he needs no convincing; Pepper believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that his wiggling fingers and guttural machinations rocked that mountain to its core. Even when Hishimoto expresses his doubts, Pepper will not be swayed. Giving his faith one last chance, he stretches his fingers toward Japan, gives a long, deep growl and wills the war to end so that his father can come home.


While Pepper labors for hours, Father Oliver and Hishimoto share a nice scene over a game of cards, expressing the opposite views of faith that so many of us have heard: one (Father Oliver) admiring the boy’s tenacity in spite of doubting the outcome, and the other (Hishimoto) finding such blind faith dangerous and destructive.


****SPOILER ALERT ****

What happens next has left many reviewers disgruntled with this film. Just as Pepper had prayed, the war with Japan does end with the world’s introduction to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, coincidentally named “Little Boy.” In no way do the filmmakers attempt to insinuate that Pepper was praying for the destruction of thousands of Japanese people, but the local townsfolk give him the credit all the same, which is admittedly a little bothersome to the viewer.


At first Pepper is thrilled that his father will be returning home, but then the reality of what has actually transpired sinks in; this destructive force has unleashed Japan’s wrath against American prisoners of war that will more than likely prevent any of them from returning home alive. Pepper laments that his efforts have worked against him by sealing his father’s fate.


After Hishimoto narrowly survives a brutal attack  from a local thug, Pepper uses his faith to pray for his healing. Miraculously, his prayer is answered, but then sadly, while Pepper holds vigil at Hishimoto’s bedside, Emma receives the news that her husband has died in an air raid on a Japanese prison camp. Pepper’s devastation at learning of his father’s death pierces the heart, not because of the grief over losing a much loved parent, but because of the grief over losing hope in one’s faith. His wailing and tears were more than I could bear.


As expected, Pepper sinks into a depression, spurning his faith as silly and useless, but ironically, it has done a work on Hishimoto’s heart. In a very tender moment, Hishimoto expresses his admiration for the boy’s vigilance, recognizing that his innocent faith is what saved his life.


Pepper accepts his father’s death and moves on with life, but then in a wonderful twist of fate, the unimaginable happens! The family learns that through a mistaken identity, James Busbee was severely wounded but is still very much alive. Even London cannot help but acknowledge that Pepper’s faith has brought their father home to them. A bittersweet yet touching conclusion to a very moving story!


I love how this film shows how hope always prevails, even in the most dire of circumstances. Faith as small as a mustard seed germinated in the soil of this little boy’s heart so that at the right and appropriate season, a miracle happened; it didn’t occur in Pepper’s timing or in the way he had planned, but it happened all the same. What a great lesson to us all!


Truly, a wonderful film for the whole family. Available now on Netflix.

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