Eight years ago, two talented young artists from Mexico—one a handsome star of Latin soaps, the other a promising filmmaker—got together and formed Metanoia Films, intent on making movies that reflected beauty and goodness in everyday life.

'Little Boy'

'Little Boy'

Both men, actor Eduardo Verástegui and director Alejandro Monteverde, are Catholic, and while their faith certainly informed their filmmaking, they didn’t set out to make “faith-based films” or “Christian movies.” Faith and spirit would be organic, as natural to real lives as brushing one’s teeth or driving to the office. Nothing would feel forced, sanctimonious, or message-driven.

So it was with 2007’s Bella, a fine debut with Monteverde at the helm and Verástegui in one of the lead roles. It was full of spirit and color and grit and warmth, and it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

It was a subtle “pro-life movie,” not at all in your face with an agenda. In a 3½-star review for Christianity Today, Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote, “Some Christians would find it tempting to make a blaringly obvious, preachy movie, but Verástegui and Severino have wisely opted for quality instead—without sacrificing the clarity of its life-affirming message. Bella is beautiful to watch and hard to resist.”

When Bella released, I had several conversations with Monteverde and Verástegui, and found both to be earnest, bright, and imaginative, and I really liked their little movie. Bella was one of my favorite films of 2007.

Now that their second major feature, Little Boy, is hitting theaters, I’d love to talk to them again. My first question would be, “What happened?”

Little Boy isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a very good one either. Its heart is in the right place, but Monteverde and his team are trying too hard, and it doesn’t feel nearly as earthy and lifelike as Bella. I had higher expectations for Little Boy, but when I saw the trailer a few months ago, I was concerned. But hey, it’s just a trailer, right?

Turns out my concerns were justified.

The premise is fine. Set in a quaint Northern California fishing village in the 1940s, we meet the Busbees—a loving family that includes dad James (Michael Rapaport), mom Emma (Emily Watson), big brother London (David Henry), and younger brother Pepper, the little boy of the film’s title. Yes, Pepper is very small for his seven years, and all the other boys in town pick on him, one of many subplots in this story.

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About that story: the movie’s official website describes it as “a powerful and moving film about a little boy who is willing to do whatever it takes to bring his dad home from World War II alive.” At face value, nothing wrong with that description. But Monteverde, who also co-wrote the script, is trying to do far too much with what should’ve been a simple fable.

The “trying too hard” part starts from the beginning with trite and unnecessary narration by the adult Pepper. Don’t tell me what’s going on; just show me, and let it unfold naturally. (Narration via reminiscing rarely works well; The Wonder Years, narrated by Daniel Stern, and A Christmas Story, by Jean Shepherd, are two fabulous exceptions.)

Back to Pepper’s desperate quest to get his dad back from the war. This little boy is willing to try anything—and, apparently, everything—to bring his dad home alive. He tries magic. He tries prayer. He tries a funky little mojo move while grunting loudly that looks like he’s putting a hex on somebody . . . or something. He tries social justice and doing good deeds. He tries visiting a priest. He tries befriending an old Japanese fisherman who, of course, is vilified by the villagers after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

'Little Boy'

'Little Boy'

And maybe, just maybe, and perhaps without meaning to, or without considering the cost, Pepper tries dropping atomic bombs on Japan in an attempt to end the war and get his daddy back. Well, sort of. Pepper obviously doesn’t actually fly the planes and drop the bombs himself, but he does that mojo/faith/hex thing with his arms waving out over the Pacific, in the general direction of the Land of the Rising Sun. And abracadabra and kablooey, there go Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a quarter million lives, including thousands of “little boys” on the other side of the sea whose fathers were also fighting in the war. But hey, as long as it bring the title character’s dad home . . .

I hate being so cynical, because this is The Little Movie That Could’ve, and because I admire the men who made it and want to see them do well. But there are too many messages here, and too many of them mixed or conflicting.

For example, Pepper is a fan of Ben Eagle the Magician. When the magic man comes to town for a live show, he calls Pepper up to the stage and tells him to move a bottle across a table—without touching it. Pepper goes into his hocus-pocus hexy pose, and voila, the bottle moves. Which is cool and all, but in a movie that is about demonstrating the power of faith—the faith of a child, at that—do they really want audiences to equate faith with magic, or vice versa? That asking God to do something extraordinary is really no different than beseeching a two-bit magician to use some sleight of hand?

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Note to Metanoia: Please make the magic disappear.

On the other hand, two subplots make for good discussion fodder between parents and young children about the importance and power of faith.

When Pepper visits the local priest (Tom Wilkinson) to ask how he can increase his faith, Father Oliver hands him something called “The Ancient List”—a list of good deeds that Pepper needs to do “to make your faith powerful.” It’s a great list: “Feed the Hungry,” “Shelter the Homeless,” “Visit Those in Prison,” “Clothe the Naked,” “Visit the Sick,” and “Bury the Dead.” It’s heartwarming, and sometimes humorous, to see Pepper doing these things, but what is it saying about the relationship between faith and works?

Father Oliver does give a disclaimer of sorts, telling Pepper that faith works in conjunction with God’s will—thus planting the seed that no matter how strong the boy’s faith, it’s up to God whether or not his father will make it through the war alive.

Does Pepper regard The Ancient List as a mere talisman, sort of a magician’s rule book for making things happen? Is it a list of good deeds, or incantations, or both? Do our good deeds result in good things happening? Does an act of kindness bring good karma? Or do bad things happen to good people? Or all of it at once? And how does our faith grow in all of this? It’s good discussion fodder for parents and kids to explore together.

There are two excellent things about the film. One is its sheer beauty; Monteverde has a good eye for composition, texture, color, and aesthetics, and Little Boy is a joy to look at.

'Little Boy'

'Little Boy'

The other best part is Pepper’s budding friendship with Hashimoto, the older Japanese man. While the rest of the town turns on the despised “Jap,” Pepper decides—at the urging of Father Oliver—to ignore the jeers and pursue peace with Hashimoto. It’s a nice picture of grace and forgiveness in the midst of prejudice and racism.

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Pepper’s faith does appear to grow stronger throughout the film, but perhaps only because highly unlikely things keep happening as a result of his mojo thing. The trailer implies that with the faith the size of a mustard seed, Pepper can literally move mountains, and the way it plays out in the film, well, prepare to roll your eyes.

But that’s nothing compared to the final act, when things get really weird. Pepper sends prayerful hexes over the ocean, and Japan gets nuked, and all those people die, and the war ends. Which brings Pepper to the last thing on The List: “Bury the Dead.” That’s when the film runs off the rails, and it’s almost enough to make you discount the whole thing. It’s the end of Facing the Giants all over again: Guy finds God, and everything falls into place just perfectly. His barren wife gets pregnant, he gets a shiny new car, and his crappy field goal kicker boots a 51-yarder into the wind to win the Big Game. Really?

That’s how Little Boy ends, with a big fat Really? And it’s too bad. Because there’s a nice little fable in here. And 11-year-old Jakob Salvati, who plays the title role, is ridiculously cute and a decent actor, so you can’t help but cheer for the little guy.

But in the end, you’re left thinking about how good Bella was back in 2007, and that you had hoped, eight years later, they would make an even better movie. Instead, you leave the theater thinking that next to Bella, Little Boy is merely child’s play. What a bummer.

Caveat Spectator

Little Boy is rated PG-13 “for some mature thematic material and violence.” I’m stunned at the rating; it feels more like a fairly innocent, family-friendly PG movie. There’s no bad language. There’s some drinking and smoking. There’s some bullying by older boys. Hashimoto gets called “Jap” and a few other racial epithets; he also gets beaten up by some village thugs, and we see him in the hospital. The most intense violence comes in a few war scenes from WWII, but they’re not terribly graphic.

Mark Moring is a CT Editor at Large and a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta, where he helps with fundraising for ministries to homeless people.

Little Boy
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(47 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (For some mature thematic material and violence.)
Directed By
Alejandro Monteverde
Run Time
1 hour 46 minutes
Jakob Salvati, Emily Watson, David Henrie
Theatre Release
April 24, 2015 by Metanoia/Open Road
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