“Little Boy” is 7-year-old Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), so-called by the bullies in his 1940s hometown of the fictional O’Hare, Calif., because he can’t seem to grow any taller than 39 inches. Those familiar with some of the code names employed during World War II might recall another “Little Boy” (as in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima) and hope that writer-director Alejandro Monteverde doesn’t mean to make the same connection. But “Little Boy” the film is so bizarre, contrived, manipulative, and meretricious that anything is possible.
Pepper’s only friend is his dad James (Michael Rappaport), who tries to buck up the boy’s spirits by lending him a comic book about a magician who can do anything. Their mantra becomes “Do you believe you can do it?” followed by “Yes I can!” as they engage in heroic fantasies. This platitude is invoked sooner and more often than in most movies that lazily adopt it for a theme.
One thing that father and son can’t do anything about is Pearl Harbor. Pepper’s older brother London is eager to join up and kill the Japanese, but is rejected because of his flat feet. For some reason, and I don’t think this is historically accurate, the Busbee family has to offer up one male of fighting age to the cause, so dad has to go. This dubious plot device, along with various anachronisms (“not on my watch!”) indicate that Monteverde might not have been very scrupulous in his research. Instead, this is an ersatz version of the ’40s based on other movies’ ersatz versions, a Candyland-colored world seen from a child’s point of view if that child was a 30-ish filmmaker.
The story takes some dark turns, or perhaps these are just moments of narrative confusion. The bullies include Hashimoto (Cary Tagawa) as one of their victims. He’s a Japanese loner whose only friend is Father Oliver (well-played by Tom Wilkinson). It also includes some surreally ill-conceived parallel editing sequences, such as when Pepper’s pursuit and cornering by bullies is intercut with his dad’s patrol getting cut to pieces in an ambush.
In one of at least three visits to the Busbee’s home by an Army officer bearing ominous news — this is a film that believes that if a manipulative cliche works once, or even if it doesn’t, why not use it repeatedly? — the family learns that dad is MIA. Pepper first turns to hate, targeting Hashimoto, then to faith, combining his belief in the power of magic with Father Oliver’s check-list of good deeds in hopes of bringing his father home.
The fact that achieving this might involves killing lots of people gets only perfunctory attention. But it does result in one of the film’s most effective scenes, one that suggests that Monteverde might become a filmmaker of some stature once he grows up.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.