Neither faith nor magic saves 'Little Boy' from its muddled message

Jakob Salvati as the title character in "Little Boy" (©Metanoia Films)

I imagine that the writers of "Little Boy," Pepe Portillo and Alejandro Monteverde, who also directs, wanted to make a sweet film about faith and the love between a father and his son. They surely wanted audiences to see life through a Catholic lens when they crafted this highly structured, ambitious, well-cast, and beautiful-looking movie, which opens in theaters April 24. Unfortunately, while it may make you shed a tear at the end, it's for all the wrong reasons.

As "Little Boy" opens, we hear the voice-over narration of the main character in old age telling us that the U.S. is fully engaged in World War II in 1944. In a fictional, almost idyllic, California coastal town, James Busbee (Michael Rapaport) is a mechanic who runs his garage with his sullen older son, London (David Henrie), and a homeless man, Teacup (Abraham Benrubi). But James is closest to his 7-year-old son, Pepper (Jakob Salvati), whom everyone calls "Little Boy" because he is small for his age. With wife and mother Emma (Emily Watson) running the house, the Busbee home is a happy one.

When the amazing magician Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin) comes to town to perform at the theater, he challenges Little Boy that if he believes, he can make a bottle move across a table -- and it does, with a little sleight of hand from the magician, of course.

London is turned down for military service due to his flat feet, and James must go in his place. The family is heartbroken when James leaves home and the war becomes more real for them. At Sunday Mass, the associate pastor at the church, Fr. Crispin (Eduardo Verástegui), preaches about faith: If you have faith like a mustard seed, you can move mountains.

What follows is a story in parallel structure. Important human themes are juxtaposed neatly, as if a writing teacher were in charge: the love between father and son; racism and violence; understanding and forgiveness; the corporal works of mercy vis-à-vis acts of hatred; the tension between magic and faith. These are experienced through the eyes of a child and the kids and adults in his world, including a bully and a Japanese-American, Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), just released from an internment camp. The bigger conflict is, of course, between the United States and its archenemy, Japan.

The pastor, Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson) gives a list of the seven corporal works of mercy to Little Boy, telling him that to carry out these actions is a much better way to live one's faith than by magic or actions that hurt others.

Framing the central part of the film with showing love for one's neighbor through the corporal works of mercy is the most creative and original aspect, although it is not enough to save the story's overall meaning from, at the very least, gross ambiguity.

Little Boy wants his dad to come home so much that one day he decides to prove that he has faith. He extends his arms, like Ben the magician does to perform magic, toward the mountain overlooking the town. Instead of moving it, an earthquake occurs, making people think that Little Boy is on to something.

Faith through good works, or through magic, becomes the focus of all of Little Boy's efforts. Hashimoto shows him where Japan is out across the water toward the setting sun, and Little Boy once again extends his arms, commanding the war to end.

Then one morning, as he rides through town on his bike, all the people start yelling at him, "You did it!" They show him a newspaper with the headlines: "Little Boy Did It!" A bomb has been dropped in Japan that will end the war.

It is only later, when he watches the devastation of the atom bomb named "Little Boy" on a newsreel at the movie theater, that he seems to understand what has happened. At night, he has a dream he is standing, dressed in a red shirt, amid the bomb's destruction looking at the bright, unexploded red bomb with the nameplate "Little Boy."

In the ash, he sees his father's identification tags. Does Little Boy realize that the bomb means death for everyone? It is impossible to know; the scene could mean anything or nothing. Later, his mother tells him that the bomb may not be good for his dad. The Japanese may take revenge on the soldiers because the bomb wiped out an entire city.

It is precisely at this juncture that the film "Little Boy" falls apart. It left me struggling to understand just what the film was trying to say. Yet no matter how I interpreted it, this well-cast, tightly scripted film with such good production values -- a movie that wants so much to be positive and "Catholic" -- just crumples.

I was incredulous that the main motif of a film is a narrative thread linking Little Boy, an innocent child, with the name of the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The child at first thinks that it was through his efforts that the bomb would stop the war and send his father home. The dream sequence was ambiguous at best, though one priest friend thought it showed that Little Boy realized it meant death for all, but I disagree. If this was a moment of revelation, or of sorrow, what a horrible burden of guilt for a child to bear. And there is nothing throughout the rest of the film that comes near to supporting this view.

To make matters worse, his mother tells him that the bomb was not a good thing for American soldiers because the Japanese may want vengeance. Psychologically, how could this not burden a child? First he was responsible for the bomb and it was a good thing; now he is responsible for his dad not coming home because the bomb was a bad thing. This entire motif or theme makes no sense. It is a cinematic moment of transgression, a plot device that disrupts and fractures its own narrative logic.

I cannot imagine the confusion and emotional burden that this child would logically carry into the future. What were the writers thinking? The character's calm elderly voice-over seems to be telling a story where all will turn out well, but by the end we realize just how unreliable a narrator he is.

The film juxtaposes symbols and acts of violence throughout the story, from toy gun battles with imaginary cowboys and hitting a bully on the head, building up to the dropping of that first atomic bomb. Is the film justifying the use of the atomic bomb? It's hard to interpret. Either this is exactly what the film is saying, for what reason it is not clear, or it got so tangled up in the threads of its own complexity that there was no way out.

Are the filmmakers saying that there is something about the atom bomb that is good -- an old theory that certainly does not bear out today, when the nuclear threat unleashed by the two bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 is as real as ever? If the film is colored with a Catholic sensibility about the Gospel of loving your neighbor, what exactly is Catholic about this moment?

Without the clumsy link between the child called "Little Boy" and the first atomic bomb used in war, there is simply no story. I am unable to wrap my brain around ever thinking this was a good idea. But that someone has linked them and made a movie about it and filled it with unfulfilled themes that may attract Catholics, well, this is what should make us cry.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

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