Little Boy is narrated by its titular character as a grown man, and with a distinctly old-coot nostalgia for the town of his youth, O’Hare, the type of place “you see in postcards.” Glossy pastels dominate the film’s color palette, while its drippy score cloyingly adapts to every high and low of the narrative’s ever-shifting machinery. Initially, and through its bombardment of kitsch so old-fashioned and obsessively manicured, there’s only a sense that Alejandro Monteverde’s film is trying to convince you of nothing more than America’s exceptionalism.
The story follows young Pepper Flynt Busbee’s (Jakob Salvanti) crisis of consciousness after his pops, James (Michael Rapaport), is sent to war in his flat-footed brother’s place, and the local priest (Tom Wilkinson) gets the unusually short boy to think that he can will his father back home. For a not so short spell, and as an outgrowth of a scene between Pepper and the priest that empathetically argues for the necessity of faith without insisting on coerced religious conformity, Little Boy movingly captures the magic-obsessed tyke trying to navigate the fine line between the reality of his life with the delusion of his fantasies. Our country’s anti-Japanese resentment during the war may be depicted in cartoonish broadstrokes once Pepper befriends, begrudgingly at first, Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), but in the racists of O’Hare so readily buying into delusion themselves, and at the precise moment the boy’s attempt to move a mountain coincides with an earthquake striking the area, the film humanely gets to the root of how are prejudices arise from the longing that makes us susceptible to propaganda.
Monteverde’s aesthetics, however, don’t complicate the film’s professed inquiry into how these desires are mediated by pop culture. As in a scene that collages James’s tense capture in the Philippines with Pepper being taunted by a group of bullies at home, there’s less a sense of the film’s easily digestible presentation being an outgrowth of a child’s immature perspective on the world than a filmmaker’s naïve desire to convey life experience to such a sentimentalized degree that the world comes to resemble only the sham of a Norman Rockwell painting.