Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #32 Little Boy (2015)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollars pledge. The price PLUMMETS to a mere seventy five dollars for your second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth and however many subsequent choices. At those prices you can’t afford NOT to pledge. Seriously! I’m not entirely sure how, but not making Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 pledges could very well send you and your family plummeting into financial ruin or even bankruptcy. Also, it’s just plain good karma to make these pledges. I’m not too proud to confess here that I appreciate them something fierce.
I was particularly excited to get a pledge for the fascinatingly misguided 2015 Christian family film Little Boy because I had a strange hankering to watch and write about a wonderfully shitty film of faith for this column. I’m not entirely sure why that is. I’ve long been fascinated by Christian movies because they so ineptly and fascinatingly straddle two different worlds by using the ungodly medium of film, with its relentless appeals to our prurient interests, to try to spread a whitewashed, G-rated, Godly message of self-denial, self-sacrifice and Christ-like generosity.
I was also intrigued by Little Boy’s premise about the titular tiny tot’s all-consuming love for his father because it fits snugly into an experiment I have been conducting since my primary identity went from being “Film Critic” to “Father” late in 2014, not long before I involuntarily left the field of film criticism, seemingly for good. Does being a father change the way that I see movies and other entertainment about children, fathers and relationships between fathers and sons? On a similar note, does being a father myself, and deriving so much of my identity and satisfaction and joy from fatherhood make me more inclined to like sappy, sentimental slop about little boys who love their dads and dads who will move heaven and earth for their beloved sons?
The results so far have been mixed. As readers here are perhaps aware, being a dad to a four year old boy and five month old baby did absolutely nothing to keep me from actively praying for the deaths of the obnoxiously precocious, pint-sized child stars of My World of Flops entry The Book of Henry and previous Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 entry Six Weeks. Being a proud papa failed to diminish my fierce hatred of those annoying little bastards. Just thinking of them and their smug, soon-to-perish faces right now is making me angry all over again.
On the other hand, being a dad made me a soft touch for another heartstrings-tugging tale of a boy who melts the heart of a crusty father figure, the Alec Guiness/Ricky Schroder version of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
While I did very briefly get choked up at Little Boy at the very beginning and very end it did not have anywhere near as big an emotional impact on me as I had feared/hoped because despite what the movie’s marketing suggested, Little Boy is not really a story about fathers and sons and the powerful bond that they share.
Though Michael Rappaport figures very prominently in the movie’s advertising as the pure-hearted, tiny little Christian boy’s suspiciously Jewish-looking father at war in WWII he probably scores about ten minutes of screen time and disappears from the movie for a good 80 minutes. We don’t get to know his character well enough to be emotionally invested in his fate.
Little Boy’s advertising represents an unmistakable bit of bait and switch. They sold a public that was not buying a treacly, sentimental story about a big-dreaming little boy outcast whose incredible Christian faith might just be strong enough to protect his beloved father from the horrors of war, then delivered a heavy-handed message movie about how Racism Is Bad.
While I am against racism I am most assuredly not a fan of Racism Is Bad message movies, in no small part because they often try to comment incisively on the evils of racism in a manner that runs the gamut from somewhat racist to unbelievably offensive.
The wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth, over-the-top breed of racism that Little Boy asserts is bad takes the form of the vitriolic and intense hatred nobly endured by Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese immigrant whose heritage renders him a target for vicious hate crimes at the height of World War II.
When I bought Little Boy on Amazon what struck me first was the seeming incongruity of a Christian movie about a little boy trying to use the magic of belief to keep his father from harm being rated PG-13. With the exception of The Passion of the Christ, Christian movies are almost never rated PG-13 or R and Mel Gibson’s passion project was so bloody and gruesome that I’m pretty sure they actually killed that Jim Caviezel guy during the making of it. Think about it, have you seen him in anything else since then?
I quickly learned why Little Boy is rated PG-13. In its zeal to illustrate that racism is really bad, and you shouldn’t do it, the filmmakers go bizarrely overboard with racial slurs and racial violence.
The first time a character in this folksy, nostalgic, Norman Rockwell-style Christian kid’s film angrily uses a racial slur to denigrate the Japanese (unlike the filmmakers, I don’t want to throw this hateful, painful slur around) that begins with the letter J it’s jarring. The fifth time it feels perverse. By the fifteen or twentieth time a white character, including our hero and his family, drop a linguistic J bomb on poor, saintly Hashimoto it just seems grotesque.
Ah, but Little Boy isn’t just chockablock with racial slurs. It also boasts a crazy excess of racial violence as well. Hashimoto doesn’t just put up with hate speech. He’s also the victim of multiple hate crimes over the course of the film, the first one propagated by our pint-sized hero (he’s a tiny little tot with a great big capacity for racial hatred!) and his even more racist older brother, who spends much of the film in jail where he belongs.
The main character, Little Boy, sees the error of his ways and learns that, actually, Racism is Bad, when kindly, progressive Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson, giving a performance far better than the film deserves) decides to manipulate the racist little fucker into being a good Christian and good human being by giving him a list of Godly, Christ-like things he must do in order to achieve the spiritual power to bring his dad home from combat alive. In real life, this list is known in the Catholic Church as the Corporal Works of Mercy and include the following:
Feed the hungry.
Give water to the thirsty.
Clothe the naked.
Shelter the homeless.
Visit the sick.
Visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.
Bury the dead
The list of godly directives includes befriending Hashimoto. The town where Little Boy lives already hates him with the fire and intensity of a million blazing sons for the crime of being short. As someone who was bullied in elementary school, and middle school and also high school I’ve always hated the over-the-top cartoon burlesque of bullying found in movies like Little Boy.
Little Boy also suffers from the contradictory demands of movies starring child actors. Movies like these invariably revolve around children who are friendless, alienated and relentlessly bullied. But since no would ever even think about making a movie starring a child actor who isn’t ridiculously gorgeous, these bullied, friendless outcasts and outsiders tend to all look like child models, the kinds of lookers who would be the most popular kids in school in real life.
So Little Boy is relentlessly bullied by the other kids in class for being, um, short, and having a dad away fighting for his country. The biggest bully, literally and figuratively, is a morbidly obese mean kid who, perhaps not coincidentally, towers over our hero like Goliath over David. In a movie that’s all about not judging people by their looks, or scapegoating people who are different, Little Boy calls his bully a fat motherless pig (because he’s extremely overweight and his mother is dead) and we’re expected to cheer.
This awful little boy’s father is played by a mustachioed Kevin James in a performance as bewildering as the film itself. It’s hard to know exactly what the popular Grown Ups cut-up is doing here except trying really, really hard to fuck Little Boy’s mom (Emily Watson) while hubby is away, either dead or getting tortured in a P.O.W camp.
You could argue that a Christian movie about the power of a little boy’s faith does not need a character whose only purpose is to try to fuck the hero’s mom while his dad’s out of the picture, perhaps permanently, just as you could argue that such a film does not need wall-to-wall racial slurs and more than one hate crime. You would be right.
James’ horny doctor is so inappropriately amorous towards one of his patient’s still-married mothers that it’s possible that even if her husband is alive, but possibly disabled from war wounds, he’d still try to coax her into some manner of cuck situation where he would make love to the Breaking the Waves star in front of hubby, with his enthusiastic approval and participation.
As you have picked up on by this point, Little Boy is a weird, weird, weird movie. It’s never stranger than during a genuinely fascinating, hypnotic scene where it’s discovered that the Americans have dropped a big old nuclear bomb on Japan called, what else, Little Boy and the townspeople, who previously showered Little Boy with abuse for being short and then befriending a Japanese man, all decide that since Little Boy shares a name with an instrument of mass destruction that killed innocent civilians like himself then his faith must somehow be responsible for ending World War II and possibly bringing dear old daddy home safe.
If the rest of the movie were as ingratiatingly bizarre and wrong as the sequence where everyone cheers the violent deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese children then Little Boy might be insane enough to be worth recommending. Then again, I can’t say I was bored by the movie, if only because I perpetually wondered what astonishingly tone-deaf, irresponsible and counter-productive mistake it would make next.
I also appreciated that despite the air of clunky, churchy amateurishness hanging over the film, it has a trio of genuinely good performances from the dependable likes of Wilkinson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and an underused Emily Watson, who does not have much to do besides resist Kevin James’ oily sexual advances.
Little Boy is a fascinatingly self-defeating proposition. It’s a Christian family movie about the imagination of a little boy that’s wildly inappropriate for children. It’s hard to see who exactly the film’s target audience might be, beyond exceedingly forgiving Christians with low standards and weird taste who enjoy seeing racism condemned with the perverse assistance of enough racial slurs to power the average Quentin Tarantino knock-off or blaxploitation cheapie.
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