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'Little Boy' Explores Big Ideas

A newcomer's miraculous performance lifts this tale of faith and family

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

Stars: Kevin James, Michael Rapaport, Jakob Salvati, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson

Director: Alejandro Monteverde

When I was about 9 years old, I convinced myself I had telekinetic powers. No doubt it was the influence of mid-'60s TV shows — think Bewitched or My Favorite Martian — but I felt sure that if I concentrated on some inanimate object long enough, I could make it move.

Weirdly, the knowledge that I could accomplish such a feat if I truly wanted to gave me satisfaction enough. This certainty also spared me the disappointment that undoubtedly would have resulted when my brain waves failed to slide that box of Sugar Pops across the breakfast table.

All this to explain why I'm so thoroughly charmed by Little Boy, a gentle tale of a young lad in World War II America who believes he can effect miracles by brain power alone.

Little Boy

Andrew Cadelago/Courtesy Open Road Films

The audience at which Little Boy is aimed will have no problem assimilating the film's themes of faith and miracles.

Eight-year-old Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is a tiny child, bullied by other kids at school and generally uncomfortable in the big world around him. His refuge from it all is his loving, patient father, played by Michael Rapaport. But when his dad goes off to war and ends up MIA, Pepper's world comes crashing down. Chance encounters with a traveling magician (Ben Chaplin) and a kindly local priest (Tom Wilkinson as Father Oliver) then combine to help Pepper formulate a plan to get his father back. Because this is a movie, his plan involves supernatural abilities. And because the movie is from coproducers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (Son of God), it also involves faith.

Along the way — and at Father Oliver's insistence — Pepper must somehow befriend the town's lone Japanese American resident (veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a quiet loner who silently endures the disdain of his WASP-y neighbors.

Perhaps the most endearing thing about Little Boy is the unfailing commitment of everyone involved. Mexican director-cowriter Alejandro Monteverde has crafted a vision of a wartime America that is Norman Rockwellian on the surface, but which can't quite conceal its racial demons.

Kevin James is a hoot as the family doctor who has tentative designs on Pepper's lovely mother (Emily Watson), who may or may not be a war widow. Rapaport plays the sort of father every kid would want: a big, affectionate man's man who can't be bothered to clean the grease from under his fingernails before wrapping you in a bear hug. As the thoughtful Father Oliver, Wilkinson — always a welcome presence — carries just the right measure of friendly gravitas. And Watson, especially in the later scenes when it appears all is lost regarding her husband, is alternately perkily delightful or pitifully devastated.

Anchoring the film is the young Salvati, whose boyish abandon reminds me of little Ronnie Howard, but with the vaguely haunted look of Haley Joel Osment. It's always tough to tell with child actors, but Salvati looks like a keeper.

The audience at which Little Boy is aimed will have no problem assimilating the film's themes of faith and miracles. But there's also plenty to admire here for those less inclined to buy into the filmmakers' worldview. There will always be a place for movies about a child's love for a parent, as well as for those about a parent's dogged determination to deliver on promises made. Lovingly crafted and beautifully filmed, Little Boy fits into that place like a child's hand folded into a father's palm.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

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