“Little Boy” is a 2015 movie set in war-time 1940’s, in a small sea-side town in California. The little boy is Pepper, an eight-year-old, who earns the sobriquet as a result of his diminutive size. He is deeply attached to his father. When his father goes off to war, the boy in his childish imagination comes to believe that he can use magic powers to bring his father back, even when he knows that his father is being held as a POW.
Faith and Society
Here are some things to watch for particularly. First, the historical milieu. You’ll notice the authenticity of the sets, for the period. Aside from the physical set, the psychological and sociological “sets” seem right too, manifested in how people interact with one another, and the deep mistrust and fear they feel toward an older Japanese man living in their midst, Hashimoto.
Something else is a part of the non-physical setting, noticeable by the contrast with today. There is hopefulness in the air, even with the war going on, touching individual families. For children, that hopefulness is enhanced in their experience of the numinous light of childhood. Pepper is a hobbit-like character: earnest, humble, well-intentioned, and under no illusions about his own lack of power. For this reason, he acts on faith. For most of the townspeople, there is an operating belief in a something beyond, though their specific religious views are not on display.
The local priest is accorded automatic respect, and when he is approached by Pepper, gives him exercises in the form of a list. The items on the list are the kinds of things that we are admonished to do in the Bible: feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so on. Crossing off the items on the list becomes a plot progression technique.
The priest has added one item for the boy: befriend Hashimoto. In this endeavor, we see the boy move beyond the ambient racism, and begin seeing Hashimoto as an individual. In befriending Hashimoto, Pepper courageously overcomes resistance among the townspeople, to do what the list requires. Such is his desire to see his father.
Return of the Father
The underlying tension of the movie is this: Will Pepper’s father return? The boy desires his father’s return above all else. One of Pepper’s heroes is a comic-book magician. Pepper becomes persuaded that he has psychic powers himself. He strains to make a mountain move, with “faith like a mustard seed.” He then tries out his power on making his father return, aiming his psychic powers at the setting sun, knowing that his imprisoned father is in that direction: Japan.
One day he is received by the townspeople as a local hero, because the exercise of his powers must have worked. The war will be soon be over, because “Little Boy” has been unleashed on Japan. This is the name of the bomb, of course. At first the boy is triumphant, but then we see him wrestle with the moral implications. In a dream sequence he sees the devastation of the bomb. On top of that, he realizes that the short-term effect might be worse for his father, not better.
Hashimoto is friends with the priest, but Hashimoto is a skeptic. He refers to God as the priest’s “imaginary friend.” But when Pepper expresses dismay that he has apparently lost his father, Hashimoto, though a skeptic, encourages him. The love for his father is expressed in the list, Hashimoto says. This is as direct a metaphor as we are likely to encounter. We love God by expressing love to others.
A word about craft. The movie is well done. If you don’t like tearjerker plots, stay away. But if you can tolerate them in the service of subtle plot development, realistic conflict, good characters, and believable change in the characters, go get it. It’s on Netflix. This is not a ham-handed treatment of Biblical themes. In fact, you can enjoy the movie without paying attention at all to the Gospel story embedded in it.
But if you see it for the extended metaphor that is it, you’ll be enriched. Look for the love of the father. It’s there. Look for substitutionary atonement. Child-like faith. Faith in that which is unseen. All there. Even the resurrection. You’ll see.