I did not have high hopes for Alejandro Monteverde’s Little Boy (PG-13), a film tagged as a comedy, drama, and war production. Really — all of those things? So when I found myself wiping away tears several times throughout the film, I was more than a little surprised. Somehow, that comedy, drama, war combo was working.

The film, set in World War II California after Pearl Harbor, is about Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), an eight-year-old boy defined by his doctor (Kevin James) as a “little boy” because of growth development issues. This theme runs strong throughout the film, presenting Pepper as an outcast without any friends. Pepper’s only pal is his “partner,” his dad (Michael Rapaport) who takes him on imaginary adventures where the two fight crime as cowboys, pirates, etc. And, of course, Pepper’s father must go to war.

He leaves behind his wife (Emily Watson), older son London (David Henrie), Little Boy, and a barely-acknowledged car service repair shop (seriously, not sure where this family gets their income). After the Busbees get the news that their father is a POW, Pepper goes into over-drive trying to get his father back. Little Boy’s a big fan of the magician Ben Eagle and when he visits the town to do a live show, Little Boy ends up on stage, moving a bottle across a table by the sheer force of his will. Well, that’s the idea at least. With the refrain “I believe that I can do this,” Little Boy embarks on a journey to bring his father home from the war. He enlists the help of Father Oliver and the town’s one Japanese inhabitant, Hasimoto, who, because of his country of origin, is also an outcast.
Hasimoto and Little Boy learn from one another, Little Boy’s hot-headed brother doesn’t want him hanging around a “jap,” and Dr. Fox (James playing the same version of the character he always plays) is trying to weasel his way into Mrs. Busbee’s heart. It’s all predictable, and cutesy, and almost too saccharine. But it’s not. Hasimoto and Little Boy have an endearing chemistry, bolstered by Little Boy’s earnest innocence. Their relationship develops naturally. Not so natural is the relationship London has with Hasimoto; he and his old-men cronies spew hate at Hasimoto with the kind of exaggerated force suitable only for slapstick. This surprisingly menacing town gang is a sharp and unbelievable contrast to Little Boy’s budding relationship with Hasimoto.

Some people may not find Little Boy as endearing as I did. My film-viewing partner assured me that he cringed more than he cried during the film, and that Little Boy “screamed a lot, didn’t he?” He did. I’m willing to look past the flaws of young actors though, if only because they can’t help their high-pitched voices. I found his sobbing poignant and touching. My friend found it annoying.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of America during WWII. If anything, it reminded me of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, a film that shows a young boy in the Holocaust spiriting himself away from the horrors of concentration camps with the force of his will and imagination. Both films tell tragic tales from a refreshingly different perspective — the world of war made bittersweet through the eyes of a child.

In a slightly uncomfortable plot twist, Little Boy has a greater effect on the war’s outcome than he could have imagined (history buffs know what I’m talking about).

The movie boils down to a lesson of love, faith, and the power of one’s own mind. Father Oliver thinks that God can help Little Boy solve his problems, if only Little Boy has strong faith. Hasimoto thinks Little Boy can accomplish anything he puts his mind to, a la a Japanese samurai. Little Boy is banking on a combo of the two.

I liked the movie. I had to squint my eyes and cock my head a few times to tilt the characters back into the places I thought they best fit (obnoxious London falls flat at his attempt to turn into a good guy), but all in all, the film accomplished what it needed to with just enough comedy, drama, and, well, war. Check it out in theaters tomorrow. 

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