The past few years have seen a marked rise in the number of Christian-themed films getting wide theatrical distribution, but to call it a "new wave" of faith-based cinema is probably inappropriate. That designation is usually reserved for a handful of like-minded or otherwise connected filmmakers working at the same time and advancing their movement, whatever it happens to be, with films of noteworthy quality or innovation. Sadly, most of the current crop of Christian films are awful.

These products are often jaw-droppingly inept (Saving Christmas), overflowing with delusional paranoia (Last Ounce of Courage), examples of stupid cruelty (God's Not Dead), or simply boring (Do You Believe?). So when encountering a movie as decently produced, reasonably well-acted, and sincere as Little Boy, regardless of its flaws, it's difficult to consign it to the same slag heap.

Set during World War II, the title performs double duty. It was the name of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, of course, but here it also provides a nickname for the protagonist, a small-for-his-age, 8-year-old boy named Pepper (Jakob Salvati). It's a level of duality and ethical difficulty the film doesn't have the ability to approach with anything resembling sensitivity or skill, but otherwise it's trying really hard.

Bullied around town, Pepper leads a lonely life. While his father (Michael Rapaport) is off serving in the war, and his mother (Emily Watson, too good for this) patiently waits for her husband's return, Pepper consults the kind, wise, town priest (Tom Wilkinson, ditto) for advice on earning God's favor for Dad's safe return. To demonstrate to the child that faith is an action rather than mere belief, the man hands Pepper a list of Catholicism's Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, and off the boy goes to do-good his father home, checking off tasks one by one.

Mixed up in all this is Pepper's belief that he can literally move objects -- a soda bottle, a mountain, the entire country of Japan -- with his faith. (Spoiler: he cannot, regardless of how the trailer is selling the more supernatural aspects of the film.) And there's the blunt depiction of American racism against Japanese citizens in the time of internment camps. These elements become the most worthwhile of the film's reasons to exist. They grounds the Christian worldview in recognizable reality, allows non-believers to have their say without narrative threat or condescension, and acknowledges that even in times of war, hate is not a quality to be cultivated.

Unfortunately, the film's determination not to be lumped in with the lunatic fringe of contemporary religious filmmaking is, ultimately, superseded by its inability to convey irony. So when Little Boy Pepper learns of the existence of the historical Little Boy, and the blonde child's innocent glee over his namesake has nothing to temper it, no adults nearby to explain the truth, no filmmaking nuance or desire to convey the horror of what "God" did to end the fighting, the movie can't recover.

At that point, what had been a good-looking (Bernardo Trujillo's warm production design is a soothing counterpoint to the unhappiness of war-time life), generically directed (by Alejandro Monteverde), and occasionally overwrought drama about childhood literalism becomes a grim reminder of the effects of myopic, intensely personalized faith. Its lingering message is one of rejoicing in personal victory and blithe ignorance of the suffering that allows for it. Eventually, a contemporary faith-based film will get this balance right; it's just that waiting for that day may require the patience of Job.


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