This article contains spoilers for “Little Boy”
The official description for “Little Boy” reads “An eight-year-old boy is willing to do whatever it takes to end World War II so he can bring his father home,” which sounds harmless enough. But the movie, which stars young David Henrie alongside Emily Watson and Michael Rapaport, is ranking up some of the year’s angriest reviews, especially because of its ending. Giving away a movie’s final minutes is verboten in this spoilerphobic era, but critics are willing to bend the rules when a movie goes this far, or else carve out a special space to talk about it elsewhere.
Here’s how Alan Schersuthl in the Village Voice describes “Little Boy’s” utterly bonkers denouement, comparing this ostensibly “faith-based” film — “The Bible’s” Roma Downey and Mark Burnett executive produced — with René Clément’s “Forbidden Games” to show just how far films about religious belief have fallen:
Did you know that there’s a new family-audience feature film that implies God nuked Japan because one plucky American moppet dared to dream? That’s no exaggeration. In the summer of 1945, the kid stands on a California dock, points his fingers magician-style out at the Pacific horizon, and screams a series of prayerful “Arggggh!”s in his efforts to perform some war-ending miracle. He’s trying to move heaven and earth to get his father home from a P.O.W. camp; the movie, confoundingly, intercuts the dad’s capture and torture with the son’s being tossed by small-town bullies into a dumpster.
The kid prays and arggghs until the filmmakers, gauche and monstrous, cue up a jubilant “This Little Light of Mine” for the payoff to a gag you will have dreaded since learning the film is called Little Boy and that “Little Boy” is its small-fry hero’s nickname. One morning his neighbors are dancing in the street, and the headline in the local paper credits “Little Boy” with de facto ending the war. That God, always eager to smite foreign cities if you just believe!
In a “Spoiler Space” addition to his review (where “Little Boy” gets a D) the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd is a little more charitable, or at least tries to figure out what in hell Alejandro Montevderde, who also directed the pro-life melodrama “Bella,” was thinking.
Part of what “Little Boy” is after is a vision of the hate that flowed through American veins during World War II. Surely there were people who hooted and hollered in the street when Truman dropped the bomb, and maybe we’re not supposed to share the exuberance of the characters here. Certainly, the film takes a small moment to complicate that reading, as Little Boy (he has a name, but I’m not going to use it here) has a hideously stylized dream about walking through the ruins of Hiroshima, suggesting he feels some guilt about what he thinks he did. Furthermore, it’s suggested that the kid’s father may actually have a rougher time in the Japanese POW camp because of the bombing; the war may be ending, but the prisoners will suffer before it does. (Be careful what you pray for, etc.)
But for all its attempts at playing coy — having characters posit each demonstration of belief’s power as a potential coincidence, for example — “Little Boy” exists in a moral universe where miracles can happen and your faith can reap tangible rewards. The film may express some ambivalence about the destruction of Hiroshima, but it still pretty clearly suggests that Little Boy willed it, making this a film that believes in a God that would vaporize countless people to demonstrate the power of belief to one spunky kid. That’s kind of sick, isn’t it?
In his review, Salt Lake City Weekly’s Scott Renshaw finds much to admire in “around 100 of its 105 minutes” — but oh, those last five minutes. In a Letterboxd post several times longer than his original capsule, he excoriates the film for abandoning what seems to be a story about a young boy’s realization that God is not “a magician who waves his wand whenever we want Him to, but a manifestation of love and goodness whose will we are expected to serve on earth.” With one idiotic final twist, it betrays even that idea.
So it comes to pass that The Bomb is dropped, and the townspeople are all amazed that “Little Boy” (yes, it makes the shudder-inducing connection between the tiny kid’s nickname and the code name for the atomic bomb) ended the war. But we then see Pepper have a nightmare of the bombed cityscape, suggesting his sense of personal responsibility for this actions. And then comes the news that his father — who we already knew was a POW — had not survived during a gunfight to liberate the camp. After the funeral (with no body to bury), the grieving boy takes his list of good deeds and places it on the headstone. “I did this for you,” he said, and what a stunning way this would have been to end this story. His father’s impact on his life was making him want to be a better person, and a better Christian.
Guess what. It was all a big misunderstanding! Some other prisoner had stolen Dad’s boots (including his dog tags), and had been misidentified among the dead. So Dad’s alive! Pepper’s faith brought him home alive after all! Hurray!
Given that “faith-based audiences” don’t tend to take their cues from mainstream critics, its C- Criticwire average and 11% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes won’t have much effect. But even Christianity Today, which one might expect to be more sympathetic to its aims, has doubts. Mark Moring writes: “It’s the end of ‘Facing the Giants’ all over again: Guy finds God, and everything falls into place just perfectly. His barren wife gets pregnant, he gets a shiny new car, and his crappy field goal kicker boots a 51-yarder into the wind to win the Big Game. Really?”
Yes, really. Sounds like the target audience for “Little Boy” as much as it is people who love the WTF sensation of watching a movie utterly fall apart in its final act.