As we all know, bullying is not a new phenomenon, and the issue of picking on the little guy is front and center in director Alejandro Monteverde’s new movie. In “Little Boy,” the David and Goliath aspect of the big bully beating up the tiny fellow is further illustrated by the diminutive stature of the title character.
Young actor Jakob Salvati plays Pepper Busbee, a sensitive child who is far, far smaller than any of his peers. In fact, his parents (Emily Watson and Michael Rapaport) are deeply concerned he may be suffering from borderline dwarfism.
The film is set at the beginning of World War II in a small California town where Pepper’s only real friend is his dad, James, who shares his son’s love of both comic book heroes and letting one’s imagination soar.
When the flat feet of Pepper’s oldest brother prevents him from enlisting in the war effort, James goes in his place — much to the horror and despair of little Pepper.
It’s at this point that the well-intentioned film goes a bit off track as the story turns heavy-handed with its stress on the power of faith to turn things around.
Pepper is convinced that if he wills it and does good deeds, his faith alone will bring his father back from the war in the Pacific.
This approach is layered over an important plot angle that forces Pepper to befriend a man recently released from one of the internment camps where the U.S. government imprisoned people of Japanese descent during the war.
Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is hated by the local townsfolk, who want to run him out of their community — seeing him as the embodiment of the enemy that killed so many of their fighting men.
While the lead actors deliver lovely performances, it’s a shame they have to work with material so ham-handed and overbearing. Another fine performance is given by Tom Wilkinson as the local priest, Father Oliver, but again his approach to salving little Pepper’s depression over the absence of his father is also very sappy. He presents Pepper with a list of “seven corporal works of mercy” (“feed the hungry, “shelter the homeless,” etc.) that come across as merely banal and trite.
Salvati’s earnest performance is quite gripping and reminiscent of Haley Joel Osment back in the day. His natural poise in front of the camera is truly remarkable, and one of this movie’s saving graces.
I just wish the filmmakers didn’t feel like they had to hit us over the head with all the moral pontificating to get their point across.
Open Road presents a film directed by Alejandro Monteverde and written by Monteverde and Pepe Portillo. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic material including violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.