The new World War II drama Little Boy is about a kid who can kill people with his mind.
Thing is, it doesn't realize this is what it's about. Little Boy sees itself as a heartwarming, sentimental, nostalgia-doused story about a child's faith and a father at war. The movie seems utterly and sincerely well-intentioned — which is why what happens in it is so jaw-dropping.
Directed by Alejandro Monteverde, who wrote the script with Pepe Portillo, Little Boy is set in a small California town so golden and picturesque that even the narrator (Barry Ford) compares it to a postcard. It stars an angel-faced sprat named Jakob Salvati as Pepper Flynt Busbee, and if that name weren't adorable enough, the local bully, who picks on Pepper because he's short, saddles him with the even cuter nickname of the title. Pepper wants only for his beloved dad (Michael Rapaport) to come home safely from the Pacific front, and he starts to believe that if he wills it to happen, it'll come to pass.
Little Boy, which is headed to theaters on April 24, is technically a faith-based film, but with a better-than-average cast (including Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and Kevin James) and nicer production values, it's reaching for a broader audience. But it also demonstrates how tricky it can be to realize faith on screen, especially in such a startlingly literal fashion. In Little Boy, faith isn't just a source of spiritual strength and solace, but something akin to The Secret — it has the power to non-metaphorically move mountains.
Pepper, at the behest of his priest, sets out to complete the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, with the idea that his father will somehow have to return when he's managed all of these charitable acts. But after serving as a volunteer on a touring magician's stage show, he also starts to believe he can move and make things happen with his mind.
The two become entwined as Little Boy proceeds, the doing of good works and the concentrating hard on things while making a face that might otherwise be associated with constipation — it's all belief. Pepper tries his power on a nearby mountain, and moves it (with the help of a conveniently timed earthquake). And with that success under his belt, he figures out which direction Japan is in, and starts making magic faces at it.
(WARNING: Spoilers follow.)
After all that valiant bearing down while facing East, Pepper wakes up one morning to the town congratulating him and waving newspapers announcing that a nuclear bomb sharing his nickname has just obliterated Hiroshima. All of the imagery of mustard seeds and David and Goliath comes together in a rousing moment in which a little boy's faith has seemingly ended the war by causing a nuke to wipe out a city. The town celebrates Pepper as a hero responsible for the death of tens of thousands of faraway people in an incredibly bizarre heartstrings-grab.
Little Boy isn't totally indifferent to the fact that, war aside, the Japanese are people too and not just abstract obstacles in the way of a father and son's uniting. The movie places the burden of representing their humanity on Tagawa, who plays the surly-with-a-heart-of-gold Hashimoto, the town's sole Japanese resident and, thanks to the war, a target of constant abuse.
But regardless of how you feel about the use of nuclear weapons during WWII, the movie's attempt to co-opt them for feel-good magical realism is so surreal that the whole thing seems like some giant accident, like it's a feature-length version of that trailer that recuts The Shining as a romantic comedy. Pepper concentrated, and a whole city was destroyed. It's an ominous soundtrack away from the greatest episode of The Twilight Zone, "It's a Good Life," which was also about a cute kid who could do things with his mind. Only in that version, everyone only pretended they liked it.