Director Alejandro Monteverde’s upcoming film Little Boy offers a story about childhood, faith, and prejudice set in a tiny California town during World War II. The film, in theaters this weekend, features beautiful imagery and a compelling storyline, and demonstrates careful production that captures the charm of 1940s America.
The film is rich in potential, and some are rushing to support it merely because it is a “Christian” film, while others wonder whether Monteverde’s latest effort might not feature the same weaknesses of storytelling and pacing that handicapped his 2006 pro-life movie Bella. Whether Monteverde’s new film presents the difficult topic of religious belief effectively to anyone outside the faith-based demographic is debatable; some critics have already dismissed the film, as Variety did, as “cloying” or, as the Hollywood Reporter did, as “saccharine.”
Perhaps the reason some critics have already distanced themselves from the film is not that it’s too sweet, but that it is too childlike. Variety complains that, despite solid cast performances, the film is “content to treat the viewer like a child.” And that, for Variety, is Little Boy’s crime. To give up the impenetrable armor of irony, cynicism, and self-awareness typical of many of today’s movies and see life through a child’s eyes is perhaps too much to ask of hardened modern audiences. Adult movie-goers relate much more easily to a serious film about adult sin than to a serious film about childlike virtue.
But, like faith itself, Little Boy is not quite that simple.
The film first paints a colorful portrait of small-town America, “like you see in postcards,” the narrator says. This portrait is Norman Rockwell-ish, even evocative of specific Rockwell paintings: a sailor being tattooed; children hanging out in a soda shop. The first scenes brim over with old-time Americana—from vintage comic books to an apron-clad mother in pearls to posters of Uncle Sam. It’s a nearly perfect world. Life is simple; the nation may be at war, but the battle-lines, even on the home front, are simplistically clear for eight-year-old Pepper (the titular “Little Boy,” played by winningly natural Jakob Salvati) who idolizes his father, James Busbee (played by Michael Rapaport). But as swiftly as the film establishes this picture-perfect cultural milieu, sudden cracks and shadows begin to emerge as the audience—through Pepper’s eyes—grows aware of a world of greater emotional and social complexity. Bullied for his small size, Little Boy must also cope with a town changed by war and marred by racial discrimination cloaked as patriotism.
Busbee’s relationship with his son and departure for war are covered with breathtaking rapidity—in the first seven minutes or so. By contrast, Pepper’s mother (the tough-but-gentle Emily Watson) remains somewhat on the periphery of her son’s battles while facing challenges of her own, from her husband being missing in action to financial woes to unwanted suitors. Since Pepper’s motivation for the rest of the film relies heavily on his relationship with his father, the viewer might wish that this relationship was fleshed out a bit beyond the story-time escapades highlighted in the movie’s first few minutes.
Nevertheless, we see his father through the child’s eyes—and that’s what matters, because Little Boy’s perspective is the key to the film.
When a (admittedly, cartoonish) bully mocks Pepper for his small size, he gets down at Pepper’s height and declares sarcastically, “The world is so much bigger from down here!” The throwaway line provides a crucial context for the film’s discussion of faith, as the bully’s choice phrase reveals Little Boy’s strength. For, as G.K. Chesterton once said, “How much bigger your life would be, if your self could become smaller in it!”
As another character tells Pepper, “Do not measure yourself from here [the boy’s head] to the floor. Measure yourself from [there] to the sky! That makes you the tallest boy in town.” His littleness, his childlikeness, is what enables Little Boy’s faith, because he is not constrained by an adult’s egocentric worldview. If he allows himself to be small, allows humility and charity to temper his vision, his worldview is that much bigger, unclouded by his own ego.
By contrast, his older brother London—bitter for being rejected by the army for his 4F status—takes the opposite approach; he tries to make himself “big,” gravitating toward bars where he feels more manly, and assuaging his wounded ego by activities that make him feel important—like harassing an elderly Japanese man, Hashimoto.
This context—the conflict between two visions of reality, the best being the “little” way in which Pepper allows his smallness and humility to guide his treatment of other human beings—provides the backdrop to the central question of faith, which Pepper first mistakes for a superpower. Does faith serve an egocentric purpose, or does it play a role in a providential plan bigger than us? Is it “an inner power” by which we can manipulate our world? Or is it, as Pepper’s parish priest points out, wholly reliant on the will of another Mover? If faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain, then why can’t it bring Pepper’s dad back from the war?
As Pepper’s mother says, “I wish things were that simple.”
The film juggles different interpretations of faith in order to find these answers. The magician/superhero Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin) represents faith as a magical power; Pepper’s priest, on the other hand, makes a careful attempt to explain faith as a relationship with God, a working in accord with God. But even Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson) cannot answer the complex question perfectly.
With the priest’s difficulty in explaining faith to a child, the film shies away from wooden religious stereotypes—with the exception of a nun whose habited presence and single memorable line (“It’s a miracle!”) is wholly superfluous to the film. Still, Father Oliver gets closer to communicating the essence of faith to Little Boy than does the younger, more pedantic Father Crispin (Bella star Eduardo Verastegui, also a co-producer of Little Boy), who offers theological distinctions unfit for a child.
Though he hesitates and fumbles in explaining God’s will, Father Oliver conveys to Pepper that faith cannot take root in a heart where it will be crowded out by hatred or pride. Humble charity—tangibly lived in the corporal works of mercy—is necessary to till the field of the heart to prepare it for the mustard seed of real faith. To counteract the nasty prejudices planted in the boy’s heart by war propaganda, the priest gives Pepper an “ancient list” of the corporal works of mercy, with an additional mandate to “befriend Hashimoto,” and tells the boy that if he completes this list, his faith will grow.
Neither Father Oliver nor Pepper’s family are prepared for his plan to “use” faith to get his dad back; and Pepper’s family is taken aback by his persistent determination to befriend Hashimoto, callously cold-shouldered by the rest of the small town simply for being a “Jap.” When Pepper is told that he must root out this sort of hatred from his heart to have effective faith, he doggedly learns not to treat Hashimoto as “the face of the enemy,” but rather to call him his “friend.” So when the town rejoices over the atomic bomb—ironically named “Little Boy,” and at first mistaken for the answer to Pepper’s prayers—Pepper is able to envision real humans demolished by the bomb, not just a faceless “enemy.” The racial conflict in the small town escalates, though the filmmakers are careful to show that malicious prejudice often results from deep personal wounds. London’s role in this racial antagonism is dark, though passing; it is one of the weaker elements of the plot that his eventual change of heart does not appear to stem from any clear motivation, despite David Henrie’s strong performance, which compellingly reflects the insecurities of coming to manhood during a time of war.
While fielding these issues, the story dodges specific definitions of faith, never offering a clear-cut answer— reflecting the fact that the workings of faith are often, to put it bluntly, mysterious. Hashimoto, for example, identifies faith as self-will (“faith in oneself, not in your imaginary friend in the sky”)—a position that lends itself to relativism; he tells Little Boy to “do what makes sense for you.” His worst fear is that the boy might lose faith “in himself.” Hashimoto encourages Pepper—through a sort of Samurai David-and-Goliath fable—to stand up to a bully. This distracting segue muddies the water in the film’s search for faith. Yet it is clear that these strengths of character are not the same thing as faith, although they aid it. “It takes courage to believe,” remarks Hashimoto.
It takes courage to believe that God will, in his way, fulfill our hearts’ desires. Faith does not simply demand that God give us what we want, Pepper learns; since, as the film makes evident, we cannot see how what we ask for fits into God’s larger plan. Faith, rather, gives us the humility to trust his Providence—if we are “little” enough to receive it. Sidestepping both the brightest and darkest possible endings while still delivering a satisfying resolution, the film ultimately allows Pepper to face hard and even unanswerable questions. It doesn’t attempt to ease the grimmest realities with mere platitudes—while maintaining that faith is a powerful part of life’s journey.
From its nostalgia-driven setting to its poignant depiction of human grief, the film is less about faith as a power and more about how faith is deeply intertwined with other virtues. Embracing the will of God with trust is only possible in the “Little Boy” vision of an other-centered cosmos, not an ego-centric one in which bigotry, cowardice, or pride crowd out the possibility of faith. Rather than seeing the world in a narrow “adult” vision, hardened by bitterness and loss into hatred and aggression, Little Boy’s humility and growth in charity widens his vision and enables him to see the humanity of every person. Because he is little, his world is large: he is able to experience the mystery of Providence— and to meet its challenges with faith.
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