Mexican director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, whose 2006 prolife film “Bella” wowed at the Toronto International Film Festival, tugs even harder at our emotions in “Little Boy,” set in the waning days of World War II.
Empowered by a hokey movie-matinee crime-fighting magician and motivated by a Sunday sermon concerning the faith of a mustard seed, 7-year-old Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) believes he can will his father (Michael Rapaport) safely home from the war if he demonstrates certain tenets assigned to him by the parish priest played by Tom Wilkinson: Feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc…
Wilkinson’s Fr. Oliver adds a personal task to the list. Pepper must befriend the town pariah, an aged Japanese man named Hashimoto who has been bullied by locals since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The Daniel LaRusso-Mr. Miyagi dynamic of the pair is at times distracting — to Pepper’s complaints about being too small to fight back against his tormentors, Hashimoto vividly retells of the rise of the Samurai against invading Mongols — but manages to stay on the serious side of wax-on/wax-off interactions.
For generations unfamiliar with internment camps or that the Japanese were once targets of savage racism here on the home front, tackling this dark chapter so effectively makes the subplot salient. “Why do they hate you?” Pepper asks. “Because I have the face of the enemy” is Hashimoto’s sullen response.
But again and again, it is another question that moves the plot forward, a challenging credo subscribed to by both Pepper and his father: “Do you believe you can do this?” Whether a nod to America’s legendary can-do spirit or to the power of faith, persistence and determination, this is what drives the indomitable Pepper to move a mountain (unless you would rather believe the seismologists) and to end the war (or maybe it’s just a coincidence that Pepper and the bomb dropped on Hiroshima share the same nickname).
Monteverde paints an inspiring notion that the bond between a father and his son can transcend time, space and even mortality and is reminiscent of one of 2011’s best films, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Comedian Kevin James has a small role and Oscar-nominated Emily Watson co-stars, but it is young Salvati who ably carries this film.
Med City Movie Guy’s rating: 4 Honks