A homeschooling innovation brings opportunity and danger
Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey have proved they can draw audiences to Scripture-inspired entertainment. Their 2013 History Channel miniseries, The Bible, made, well, history, as the highest-rated cable show of that year.
Though its theatrical follow-up, Son of God, was basically a recut version of the TV show, padded out with repurposed and deleted scenes, it scored impressive box office earnings as well. And while The Bible’s sequel series on NBC hasn’t quite managed to achieve numbers to rival the original, A.D. is still drawing impressive ratings and is likely to be renewed for 2016. Now Burnett and Downey are trying to extend their winning streak to another kind of big screen historical drama.
Unlike the other scripted productions they’ve backed, Little Boy isn’t based on accounts of eyewitnesses divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit. Rather it’s a wholly fictional World War II–era drama born from the mind of writer/director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, best known for his work on the 2010 pro-life movie Bella. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising the faith depicted here is infinitely smaller, simpler, and a lot more human than that displayed in Burnett and Downey’s Bible-based television series. Even if some elements of those previous offerings didn’t succeed as well as they could have, the overall narratives couldn’t help but reflect some of the complexity and power of their source material. The Christianity of Little Boy, in contrast, is more of a Hallmark card, Facebook meme kind of Christianity.
When seven-year-old Pepper (Jakob Salvati), known as Little Boy to his classmates, learns that his father is being deployed to Japan during World War II, he appeals to Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson) for advice. The priest cites the passage in Matthew about how even mustard-seed-sized faith can move mountains and suggests Pepper begin to grow his capacity for belief by carrying out the directives of Matthew 25—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, and so on.
Pepper’s ingenious and often amusing interpretations of these directives make up the movie’s most entertaining sequences. He tools about doing good works in a 1945 California town brimming with the kind of quirky naiveté that only exists in our nostalgic imaginations. Even the racism Pepper encounters has an aw-shucks quality reminiscent of Forrest Gump, yet it fits with the overall tone of a story told mostly through the eyes of the child protagonist.
I have to agree with the film’s producers, who reportedly lobbied unsuccessfully to have the Motion Picture Association of America downgrade their original rating, that references to a Japanese character as a “Jap” should have merited a PG rather than the PG-13 it received. The comparatively mild slur functions exactly as it should for viewers in Pepper’s age range—exemplifying the sinfulness of bigotry without resorting to more shocking language.
The more problematic aspect of the story arises from moments that are presented as possible miracles or (again à la Forrest Gump) as possible outrageous coincidences. Whether Pepper truly moves mountains is left to the audience’s judgment. This is faith of the postmodern “if it feels true for you then it’s true” variety. While the townspeople’s reactions to events Pepper appears to cause are undeniably funny, the laughter undercuts the movie’s biblical references.
The miracles performed by Christ and His disciples aren’t open to interpretation. They were concrete occurrences that happened regardless of whether an individual is persuaded by them or not, and Little Boy’s vague suggestion that we can decide what faith means for ourselves is somewhat unsettling in this context.
That said, while the story has some logical (not to mention theological) inconsistencies, it is well-paced, well-produced, and very well acted. I can’t think of the last time a film that bills itself as faith-based featured performances as good as those from Salvati and Wilkinson, as well as from their co-stars Kevin James and Emily Watson. It left me eager for their next big screen outing, a remake of Ben-Hur.