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In Theaters


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Adam R. Holz

Movie Review

“I was 8 years old. My dad was my only friend. My partner,” Pepper Flynt Busbee narrates in the opening moments of Little Boy. “I wanted to be just like him and do everything he did. And everything we did became a great adventure.”

Those “adventures,” it turns out, were mostly of the imaginary variety: weathering the waves on the high seas; surviving an Old West shootout before riding off into the sunset. Against all odds, they prevailed every time while enmeshed in their tall tales. And their success depended on, James Busbee impressed upon his earnest son, believing they could achieve the impossible.

“Partner,” Dad would say, “do you believe we can do this?”

“I believe we can do this!” Pepper would respond every time.

And so they did. Right up until the moment Emma Busbee told them it was time to snap out of their shared idyll and come to dinner.

One night at one of those interrupting dinners, Dad’s delight for his family is tempered by an uncharacteristic and ominous melancholy. Eldest son London had tried to enlist in the army to fight in World War II against the much-loathed Japanese. But despite London’s zeal to serve, he learns he’s flat-footed. And so James enlists in his place as the requisite representative from the Busbee clan.

“Why can’t we stay together?” Pepper cries.

“Partner, I have to go.”

James Busbee soon finds himself in the midst of a not-so-imaginary jungle battle in the Philippines. And his family is left behind to face battles of its own.

Emma fights against loneliness, not to mention the attentions of a local physician, Dr. Fox, whose inappropriate interest isn’t hard to spot. London bludgeons away at booze, bitterness and his mechanical ineptitude as he tries to take over his father’s garage. And Pepper? He stands toe-to-toe with Dr. Fox’s son, Freddy, a thuggish lad with a penchant for mocking Pepper’s small stature.

London’s convinced they’ll never see their father again. But Pepper, thanks to Dad’s fortifying influence, is a true believer in a better outcome. He knows their father is coming home. And when he’s chosen to be a magician’s assistant in a local magic show and seemingly moves a soda bottle through the dint of his will alone, Pepper’s already strong certitude about the power of belief deepens and solidifies.

Pepper’s faith is further bolstered by the small California coastal town’s Catholic priest, Father Oliver, who encourages the “little boy” (as he’s known) to keep believing, to keep praying for his father to return to home and for the war to end.

And believe Pepper does.

Positive Elements

At Father Oliver’s encouragement, Pepper sets aside both personal and corporate aversions to the “enemy” and befriends an aging Japanese American named Hashimoto. (The much-despised man lives outside town and is discriminated against by pretty much everyone except Father Oliver.) As Pepper gets to know Hashimoto, he hears his story of coming to America many decades ago. Hashimoto considers himself an American and loves his country, despite the ill treatment he receives. And Hashimoto and Pepper’s friendship pays relational dividends for both of them, as each has a chance to help and defend the other.

That’s hardly the only positive content in the movie, but most of the rest of it has to do with the spiritual themes that Little Boy explores …

Spiritual Elements

Being such a young and tender boy, Pepper’s belief is largely in his father and inspired by his father. But once his father is gone, Pepper begins to own a belief of his own that’s for his father.

That faith demonstrates itself in an almost magical way. When Pepper attends a magic show put on by the well-known prestidigitator Ben Eagle (who’s also featured in the comics Pepper reads and matinee serials he watches), Pepper’s chosen from the audience to move a soda bottle with his mind. It’s a stage trick, of course, but Pepper doesn’t know that. When the bottle moves, he thinks he’s done it.

Pepper’s understanding of belief takes its next step when he hears that for those who have faith as small as a mustard seed, “nothing is impossible.” And so, with childlike acceptance, he goes to the store and gets a tin of those tiny seeds, thinking they will help him as he prays for his father to return. (He also wonders if mustard seeds are what give Ben Eagle his power.)

These are the kind of questions he brings to Father Oliver, who seeks to help the boy grow in his faith. The priest explains that when our prayers are answered, it’s because our petitions have moved God to act. “It’s up to Him,” Father Oliver explains. “He’s the Mover.”

When Pepper asks, “How can I get bigger faith?” Father Oliver says that some believers have sought to increase their faith by following an ancient list that includes seven tasks: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting those in prison, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, burying the dead and befriending one’s enemies. He suggests that pursuing these activities may increase Pepper’s faith as he prays for his father.

Pepper quickly decides his must then check off every item on the list to guarantee his father’s safe return from the war. Father Oliver cautions that it will work “only if it’s God’s will,” of course, but Pepper is deaf to any downside. “Why wouldn’t it be God’s will to bring my dad back?” he asks.

Hashimoto—who isn’t a believer—ends up helping Pepper with his quest, telling him, “Do what makes sense to you.” And so Pepper does, ultimately concluding that he is helping end the war so that his dear Dad can come back to him. Indeed, Pepper’s prayers are eventually answered, but perhaps not in the way that he or anyone else expected.

Elsewhere, passing reference is made to the Dalai Lama. Someone calls Hashimoto “Mr. Buddha.”

Sexual Content

Dr. Fox hints that he’s interested in pursuing a relationship with Emma Busbee should James not return home. Pepper watches a black-and-white episode of a Ben Eagle serial that shows a woman in a shoulder- and cleavage-revealing dress.

Violent Content

James is seen in the middle of a firefight in the jungle that has already killed quite a few soldiers. (We see their dead bodies on the ground.) Later, as a POW, his camp is bombed. (We see several POWs shot, either wounded or killed.) There’s also footage of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. And Pepper has a dream in which he’s walking through the ruins. We see bandaged soldiers in hospitals.

Pepper’s harassed, chased and choked by bullies. (And eventually he stands up for himself, fighting back against Freddy.) Hashimoto is the victim of escalating harassment. His house is vandalized, broken into and ransacked. He himself is beaten and threatened with death. (He ends up unconscious and bandaged in the hospital.) London puts a shotgun to Hashimoto’s head. (But Pepper’s older brother ultimately does the right thing and helps Hashimoto, even though by doing so he risks his own future.)

An earthquake rattles the town. And the Ben Eagle episode involves a woman being abducted by the villain, who puts her head in a guillotine (but fails to execute her).

Crude or Profane Language

Pepper’s classmates call him a “midget.” Other name-calling includes “shmuck,” “stupid” and “runt.” Hashimoto is called “the Jap” and “yellow fella,” and we also hear “nip” once.

Drug and Alcohol Content

London deals with his disappointment and disillusionment with what’s happened to him and his family by drinking. We see him swig from a bottle several times; one scene takes place in a bar where people drink and smoke. London drives (with Pepper) after he’s been drinking.


What does it mean to approach God like a child (as we’re told to do in Matthew 18:3)? Or to have faith the size of a mustard seed (referenced in Luke 17:6)? Those passages quickly come to mind as we ponder Little Boy, a heartfelt story (from the makers of Bella, as well as executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey) about a young boy who simply longs to be with the daddy he loves.

Pepper has learned about believing, in a general sense, from his loving father, who’s shown him in his imaginative stories that nothing is impossible. So when faced with an impossible situation in the real world, Pepper does exactly what his father taught him: He shouts out, “I believe we can do this!”

Pepper’s faith is clearly not sophisticated or even well informed. He thinks, after all, that stretching his arms out over the ocean (toward Japan) as he prays will be the deal-clincher for ending the war. It’s as if he could project Iron Man-like beams of hope that would vaporize the conflict.

But Pepper’s faith is pure and full of hope even as others doubt. In that respect, it is what Christ tells us is childlike faith, because Pepper truly, earnestly believes. I suspect that if we had a chance to watch a boy like him actually grow up, we’d see his mustard seed of faith get planted deep in his heart as he matures in his knowledge of the One he’s praying to—whether his prayers are always answered or not.

That’s the gist of what Father Oliver says to Hashimoto when the Japanese man takes his friend to task for encouraging a “desperate child” to keep on praying. “What if his father dies?” Hashimoto asks. “Then [God] will help him through it,” Father Oliver wisely says. Father Oliver knows he’s taking a risk by encouraging the boy to believe. But he seems to understand the even greater risks of discouraging the lad’s nascent faith, too.

Little Boy, then, can certainly serve as a solid (and delightfully entertaining!) launching pad for discussions about what it means to believe, and how we navigate the specifics of why we believe what we believe about miracles and God’s sustaining hand in the midst of danger and tragedy. It also powerfully addresses the way we (should) treat those we think are our enemies.

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Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.