Keeping the Faith: ‘Little Boy,’ Featuring Jakob Salvati, Has a Big Heart

And a child shall lead them.

Jakob Salvati in Little Boy.
Jakob Salvati in Little Boy.

And a child shall lead them. Biblical references flourish throughout Little Boy, a sweet, sincere little movie about faith, charity and growing up in a sleepy Northern California fishing village during World War II. An 8-year-old moppet named Pepper Busbee performs a miracle to get his dad home after he’s reported missing in action and learns the meaning of tolerance in the bargain. Did I say sweet? This movie could make you pre-diabetic. That’s an observation, not a criticism.

(3/4 stars)

Written by: Alejandro Monteverde and Pepe Portillo
Directed by:
Alejandro Monteverde
Starring: Jakob Salvati, Michael Rapaport and Emily Watson
Running time: 90 min.

Pepper is so small and undeveloped for his age that the school bullies make his life a living hell, and to his humiliation, everybody else in town torments him with the nickname Little Boy. The name sticks, but when his older brother is rejected as 4-F because of flat feet, the family is so depressed that the father (Michael Rapaport) volunteers instead, forcing Little Boy to grow up fast. Despite the contributions of the major talents involved, this saccharine and well-intentioned movie is more likely to appeal to Christian audiences outside the major cities, where its chances as family fodder could be slim. Word of mouth will be essential to overcome tepid reviews. Stay tuned.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the village focuses its hostility toward the community’s only Japanese resident, a quiet gentleman named Mr. Hashimoto (played by the distinguished Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, from Memoirs of a Geisha and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor). Following a list of good deeds compiled by the local priest (Tom Wilkinson) and fueled by fictional character Ben Eagle, the kid’s favorite comic-book action hero with magic powers, the impressionable Pepper is more determined than ever to bring home his dad, who has been captured by the Japanese in the Philippines. His first good deed is to befriend the old man.

In keeping with America’s shameful treatment of law-abiding Japanese-American citizens during the war by locking them up in internment camps, this is not a popular move. Little Boy’s own brother insults Mr. Hashimoto by calling him a “dirty Jap,” then lands in jail for setting fire to the old man’s house. But since name-calling and being treated like an outsider are two things Little Boy understands all too well, he identifies with his new friend even more, encouraging his kind, humane mother (always radiant Emily Watson) to invite him to dinner.

All is resolved when America ends the war by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and its code name, ironically, turns out to be “Little Boy.” No spoilers here, but one tragedy and a couple of miracles do occur in time for a tearful ending. I said it was a feel-good movie, although the cynics among us may find the humor and the tears more than a bit contrived.

Still, there is a lot to admire here. Writer-director Alejandro Monteverde (Bella) is not afraid to take his time letting you get to know the characters or moving things along, but the movie never seems ponderous. As Little Boy, the remarkable kid actor Jakob Salvati is so wholesome and adorable that he often seems too good to be true, even as a child coming of age in the more innocent 1940s, but Mr. Takawa invests Hashimoto with more benevolence and pathos than an abused citizen should. Instead of turning the other cheek to defeat racism, I kept wanting him to whack one of the rednecks with one of his historic samurai swords. It’s not that kind of picture, but it ought to be.

Keeping the Faith: ‘Little Boy,’ Featuring Jakob Salvati, Has a Big Heart