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'Little Boy' explores faith, racism on its way to inspiration
Emily Watson, left, as Emma Busbee and David Henrie as London Busbee in Little Boy. - photo by Josh Terry
Theres been a lot of traffic in the inspirational film category over the last couple of years. Films based on biblical stories or contemporary efforts with religious themes have come with regularity, often with Roma Downey and Mark Burnetts names attached.

Set during World War II, Little Boy is the latest entry in the field. Directed and written by Alejandro Monteverde, the film lists Downey and Burnett as executive producers. Its a far cry from last years Heaven is for Real, and it takes a few surprisingly dark paths to get to its inspirational goal.

In short, Little Boy is probably not the film you were expecting.

The films title refers to the unfortunate nickname of Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), a young boy growing up in a small coastal town in Northern California. Pepper is remarkably small for his age, but a tight relationship with his father James (Michael Rapaport) provides a foundation for his confidence.

Pepper isnt James only son with troubles, though. Peppers older brother London (David Henrie) dreams of seeing military action, but his flat feet keep him out, and James heads to the Pacific Theater in his place.

This leaves Pepper to deal with the trials of adolescence on his own. Hoping good deeds will empower his fathers safe return, Pepper enlists the help of the town preacher, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson). Father Oliver gives Pepper a list of charitable tasks and sends him to work.

Most of the list is standard fare feed the hungry, visit the sick but Father Oliver has added one custom item for Pepper: He must befriend Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), an elderly Japanese-American widower who has been suffering the full force of the wars ethnic tensions.

This is just the first of a number of unexpected turns Little Boy takes over the course of its 145 minutes. A theme of faith detours into an explicit lesson about racial tension and acceptance. And for a while, Peppers father who has been imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp is all but forgotten.

Other issues come and go. Pepper suffers the wrath of a bully named Freddy Fox. Freddys father is the town doctor (Kevin James), and once Mr. Busbees future becomes cloudy, Dr. Fox tries to move in on Peppers mother (Emily Watson).

Theres a pure heart in the midst of all this, but one gets the sense that a better movie is still waiting to emerge from behind some clumsy writing and ham-fisted execution. Certain messages are sounded with a bullhorn when subtlety might have been more effective. Little Boy does keep the audience guessing, but the payoff doesnt always deliver.

Salvati is solid as child actors go, and luckily he has veterans like Watson and Wilkinson to back him up. Tagawa often feels like he's playing the role of Mr. Miyagi, and at times Little Boy feels like a Rockwellian interpretation of The Karate Kid.

The production was five years in the making, and Little Boy betrays its low budget at times. But a scenic setting and some effective visuals like a vivid dream involving the aftermath of an atomic bomb ratchet up the on-screen quality considerably.

In the end, the twists and turns may feel a little forced, and a few moments might even be shocking. But Little Boy squeezes the most it can from a quality cast and the best of intentions.

Little Boy is rated PG-13 for some violent content and adult content, including the use of racial epithets.