World War II sweet and sour melodrama Little Boy, to be released by Open Road April 24th, works as both a soaring modern fable and grounded history lesson families can enjoy.
The film is told in “Wonder Years” voiceover style by our hero as he recalls his long ago childhood growing up in O’Hare, the Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post vision of a Californian coastal fishing town complete with local movie house, starched white clad soda jerks & barber poles. Fedora wearing old timers line Main Street grumble about war with Japan behind their Early Editions. Diminutive Pepper Busbee (Jackob Salvati) and his Dad James Busbee (a refreshingly against type Michael Rapaport) are huge fans of the serialized exploits of comic book magician / crime fighter Ben Eagle (an awesomely campy Ben Chaplin) and practical, long suffering Mrs. Busbee (Emily Watson) has her hands full trying to get wide-eyed dreamer Pepper to bed as Geek Dad James indulges his son with stories of their own imagined exploits with imaginative visuals of themselves as costumed crime fighters and pirates pulled from Pepper’s active imagination. Rappaort & Salviati sell the father/son relationship. Mr. Busbee and his son love each other dearly. As a fellow Geek Dad it’s totally relatable. He’s his partner, sidekick and best friend, and Pepper’s only solace through relentless torment by lonely widower Dr. Fox’s (a creepy Kevin James) bully son, the meanest kid I’ve seen in a while on screen.
Pepper’s draft age, brooding brother London (David Henrie) is 4F and can’t enlist so Busbee Sr. number is called up and he’s shipped off to fight in the Pacific. Soon, an Army officer drives to the Busbee home with sad news. Dad is MIA most likely a Japanese POW. After hearing a “mustard seed” sermon about faith and buoyed by a live matinee performance by his idol Magician Ben Eagle, “Little Boy” Pepper is determined to somehow harness this magical power, rescue his dad and end the war. The young priest gets grilled by Pepper on faith framed by a clever, subversive juxtaposition shot of comic book Ben Eagle and biblical Moses both performing miracles. He’s bailed out by his senior priest Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson) who gives Pepper a list of good deeds to perform to atone for vandalism he and his brother commit to increase his faith. Primarily to befriend an ostracized member of the community, the boys target Mr. Hashimoto. (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa). My favorite scenes involved their stony “Karate Kid” like relationship blossoming into respect and friendship. The film deftly strips away the idyllic Rockwellian veneer of the Post Pearl Harbor era rife with blatant xenophobia and marred by Internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry. The story progresses slowly and the stakes get higher as Pepper, aided by Mr. Hashimoto, crosses off the good deeds on his checklist one by one.
Director Alejandro Monteverde does an excellent job deftly playing your emotional heart strings as rapid fire comedic elements of Pepper’s journey are almost “Christmas Story” funny juxtaposed with the biting, unflinching dramatic turns that spring forth sometimes simultaneously. It veers between pain and delight at a moments notice, one scene in particular featuring the effect of the Atomic Bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Pepper’s nightmare about it and the townsfolks contextually understandable yet blood thirsty euphoria may be intense for younger kids.
The production vales are so rich you wont believe this isn’t a major studio production but a small independent film, shot on 35mm film stock in glorious Panavision. Visually and storywise the films high quality is a testament to the director’s skill as a filmmaker and Pepe Portillo, with whom he shares screenwriting credit. Art director and production designer Bernardo Trujillo and his team should be rewarded come Oscar time. They capture the period perfectly from the architecture and clothing to the racist newsreels that play between features at the town cinema and Ben Eagle’s Tonto-like Native American sidekick and his helpless blonde damsel in distress a nod to the The Lone Rangers serialized casual bigotry and sexism. Emily Watson’s wartime era wife and mother is complex and expertly delivered. Ms. Watson and all the supporting cast perform at a high level. Notably, Cary Hiroyki-Tagawa takes a character that could have been a simple caricature and grounds him with powerful nobility. He’s at first understandably stoic then shares remarkable tenderness with Pepper who notices how graceful and unbowed his new friend is facing down the racism he’s confronted with daily as he grows to become Pepper’s new male role model and protector. Pepper’s guilt ridden, bigoted older brother as portrayed by Mr. Henrie is another rich performance that paints London Busbee as more than a one note lout.
The faith-based film undertone wasn’t as heavy handed as some may claim. Within the context of the fanciful story faith is a superpower to be harnessed or a device like magical realism. Is it a strange coincidence or miracle when Pepper attempts to move a mountain and then a small earthquake hits? No one spells this out for you. Viewers like the fictional towns folk will debate and take what lessons he or she brings about the power of faith. The emotionally wrought triple twist of an ending I wont give away, but at the #LittleBoyMOMS Mamarazzi event screening featuring star Michael Rapaport I attended there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the lights went up. Like its pint-sized protagonist, “Little Boy” is an unexpectedly powerful little film that crib notes a time and place in America with important messages for today for young people and the young at heart. “Little Boy” has the potential to become a modern classic that should be seen and discussed.
Little Boy opens April 24th
all art – Open Road