"Little Boy" is a new film by Alejandro Monteverde (who brought us "Bella"). I'm a big fan of "Bella," and was looking forward to Monteverde's second major film. Most unfortunately, I must report that this is a misconceived film. If it were not, I would not be doing a big spoiler here, but because the turning point of the film is what is ill-conceived--and simply unacceptable--I must.
FATHER AND SON
"Little Boy" is set in California during World War II. "Little Boy" is the moniker for, well, a little boy whose growth seems to be stunted. His doctor (an uncharacteristically slimy Kevin James) doesn't know what's wrong with him. Little Boy is constantly teased and bullied because of his height, or, rather, lack of it. Little Boy lives with his Mom (a lackluster Emily Watson, unless she was supposed to be completely aloof towards all her family members), his teen brother and his Dad, who is his "only friend," and "partner." Little Boy's relationship with his father is precious. The two of them have daring, imaginative, make-believe adventures together, and their motto is: "Do you believe you can do it?!"
Imaginative adventures are a charming feature of this film. Whenever someone is describing something or relating a story, Little Boy puts himself in the story, and suddenly, we, too, are there. The set designs are consistently elaborate and vivid, with an air of hyperreality. It brought to mind "Big Fish." This alone sets the movie apart from a Hallmark film, even though the tone of "Little Boy" is of that heart-warming genre.
The "believe!" theme is akin to Disney's favorite cri de coeur. But the question always is: "What the heck are we believing in here?" (In Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda," the answer is "nothingness," since the film is Buddhist in philosophy.) God is definitely a character in "Little Boy," but the "believe" isn't clearly a God thing at first. When Little Boy's father goes off to war, Little Boy's whole focus becomes finding a way to bring his father home.
Enter two wisdom figures: an elderly Japanese man, Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and the town priest, Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson--who also played an excellent priest in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"). The former (persecuted by the townspeople for being "the enemy") is a non-believer and the latter a believer, of course. These two are also friends who like to talk theology and play chess together. Of all the religious elements in the film, this odd couple's conversations ring truest. Hashimoto tells Fr. Oliver that God is his "imaginary friend in the sky" and challenges what getting Little Boy's hopes up (that his father will return) will do to his mind and self-confidence (let alone his faith in God).
"Little Boy" would have been a great film for kids (if not for what I am about to reveal which is simply the ruination of a movie that needed to be thought out differently) because of its Gospel-applying, character-building, youth-affirming exploits. The child actor who plays Little Boy (Jakob Salvati) represents a new generation of child actors (who--along with the generation ahead of his--have been unbelievably talented). Never a false note, never out of character in close-up after close-up.
A MAGICAL LIST
THE FILM UNRAVELS
Now here's where all goes awry. SECOND SPOILER ALERT! Do you remember the nickname of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan? The townspeople show Little Boy the headlines. They believe he is responsible (because of a certain "miracle" Little Boy performed in their midst--a coincidence, no doubt). "Little Boy": the boy and the bomb save the day! Yay, bombs! It's total jubilation, and Little Boy is also convinced that he was responsible for the bomb. So, let's give the benefit of the doubt here. The war had been dragging on with tremendous loss of life (including soldiers from Little Boy's town). This bomb seemed to be drawing the war to a close. Little Boy believed that the dropping of the bomb would bring his father home. Did anyone really immediately understand what the atom bomb was and the havoc it wreaked? So far, so passable. But then Little Boy sees the news reel in the cinema and hears of a whole city wiped out. Then his mother tells him that the bomb may have been the worst thing for his father (now a P.O.W. in Japan). This is where the film falls apart entirely.
Can you imagine the guilt this little boy would feel? Why did the filmmakers put this unbearable burden on Little Boy? This is completely out of keeping with the lighter tone of the film. The story's fabric is ripped to shreds. The horror of the A-bomb is trivialized. How does the film deal with it? What reaction do we see from Little Boy? The film deals with it by not dealing with it. There is no reaction from Little Boy. The film just traipses on its merry way.
There is a dream sequence where Little Boy imagines that the bomb killed his father being held in Japan. (More guilt! But even that seems to slide off Little Boy.) Little Boy (who could be excused since he's just a kid) only wants his father home. That's all he cares about. But in the process, massive civilian casualties are a cause for celebration.
TOXIC PLOT DEVICES
It seems to me that someone built up this whole film around a major "plot device": the play on words of "Little Boy" and "Little Boy." But this was an exceedingly poor choice. Something else could have served in its stead to deliver a very similar film.
Truth be told, I was a little disappointed when I heard that Monteverde was doing a period piece. I was hoping he would be doing more gritty, contemporary films like "Bella," which are so needed today. I'm praying that his next film will be just that.