Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
…For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
Critics have almost universally savaged this faith-based film about two of society’s outsiders. Only Rex Reed of the IMDB’s Metacritics gives it a score above 50 (75 on a scale of 1 to 100), and one just a 10. Because it shares with most faith-based films a lack of subtlety, I would put it somewhere between 75 and 50—and would have gone lower but for some saving qualities. The latter consist of its message of tolerance and acceptance and its exploration of faith, magic, and miracle. The film might be mediocre but it could lead to a great discussion for people of faith. I emphasize people of faith because I think this is the only audience that will be taken in by its thick layers of sentiment.
The story, set in the small seaside town of O’Hare in northern California, begins just before the outbreak of World War Two. The unseen narrator is Pepper Busbee, looking back at his unhappy childhood. A small child, Pepper (Jakob Salvati) was cruely harrassed by the other kids, especially by a group led by the plump son of the local doctor. At home, however, all was fine, his car mechanic father James (Michael Rapaport) especially close to him. However, the boy’s domestic bliss comes to an end after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when his older brother, London (David Henrie), is turned down by the Army because of flat feet. Thus it is his father who leaves home to fight the Japanese and is reported missing in action in the Philippines.
With no father to support him Pepper’s life is filled with misery, the other boys taunting him with the title of “little boy.” Even the adults call him this, rather than by his given name. Pepper finds refuge in the adventures of a famous magician named Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin), featured in comic books, movie series, and then in the traveling magic show that plays at the town’s movie theater. Of course, when the magician asks for an assistant from the audience, he chooses the little eight year-old, who is so naïve that he thinks Ben Eagle is endowing him with the power to make a bottle move across a table. It helps that what Eagle says to him is what his father often had said to him before a difficult task, “Do you believe you can do this?”
Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is a widely hated Japanese American living on the town’s outskirts. Somehow he has escaped the government round-up and internment of Japanese American citizens—which we are shown in a newsreel being imprisoned in camps. One night Pepper joins his brother and other “Jap-hater” boys in attacking Hashimoto’s house with stones and a fire bomb. The boys are caught, and the village priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilinson) tells Pepper that as his penance he must perform the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy listed on a card he gives him: “Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Care for the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Bury the dead.” If he does these acts in good faith, the priest tells him, the Lord might be moved to bring his father home safely. But the good priest wants to do more than reassure a fearful boy; he also wants him to grow in tolerance, so he adds to the list, “Befriend Hashimoto.” One of the Works is easy, as Pepper’s brother London, being older, has been arrested for attacking the house, and sits in jail. But Pepper is aghast at “befriend” the hated “Jap”?
Pepper does, and of course, as he slowly gets to know the tacitern man, there develops a friendshp and mentoring akin to that in the classic The Karate Kid.” It is a friendship that proves costly, with the young boy, already an outsider because of his shortness, now ostracized because he is a “Jap lover.” Fr. Oliver and Pepper’s mother Emma (Emily Watson) stand by him, she even agreeing to invite Hashimoto for dinner. The meal ends badly when London comes home, very upset to discover “the Jap” at the dinner table. He orders the man to leave at the point of his shotgun.
Fr. Oliver tries to cope with Pepper’s insistence that he has magic by explaining the difference between magic and miracles, but the boy persists. In one somewhat ridiculous scene Pepper, challenged by the townspeople to prove that he can “move a mountain,” the boy stands in the street and points and waves his arms at a distant mountain as he grunts and puffs (some very bad acting and directing here!). Suddenly the ground trembles, the buildings shake. The earthquake is small, not at all destructive, but it convinces the people who had been laughing at his antics that there is something to the boy’s claim.
Then comes the sequence that at first I found appalling. Pepper, certain that he can use his powers to bring his father back from the POW camp in the Philippines where he is reportedly being held, stands at the edge of the sea every day performing the magic act that he is convinced caused the earthquake. This goes on day after day, with the people often looking on in sympathy. Suddenly the news of the end of the war reaches the town, and if you know much about how WW 2 ended you will guess the significance of the boy’s nickname. The name of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima was “Little Boy,” the jubilant townspeople pointing this out. I thought at first, what an insensitive travesty, suggesting that one American life was equal to that of the tens of thousands of people who died on that day from the blast, and later by radiation! Of course, it is understandable that the townspeople would accept this, but the filmmakers? Fortunately, the latter add a scene in which Pepper has a nightmare in which he sees the terrible destruction wrought by the bomb, including what looks like a group of blackened children, their hands clasped in a circle. Maybe he now cannot share the jubilation of the townspeople after all. I’ll leave it to you to discover what happens to the father.
Despite its many flaws, there are the above good things in this film—though for an understanding of the injustices that Japanese Americans were subjected to during WW 2 Come, See the Paradise, American Pastime, and Snow Falling on Cedars are far better. Besides a discussion of racism and the young, the scene in which the priest tries to help Pepper understand magic, miracle, and faith offers food for thought. Fr. Oliver sure would be able to help the boy understand that magic is a pretty self-centered way of getting what one wants, whereas faith and miracle always must include the words or thought of Jesus, “Yet not what I want but what you want.” This movie, despite its sincerity and spiritual qualities, will not make VP’s Top Ten Spiritual Films this year, and so I commend it to you with reservation, rather than recommend it. I keep hoping that faith based filmmakers will come up with films that are artistic and not visual sermons. Sermons are fine in the sanctuary, but in the movie theater they are as unconvincing as they are out of place.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of Visual Parables.