There are classic films, like the ones on TCM and AMC, and there are modern films. There are few modern classics. "Little Boy," in theaters April 24, could be a modern classic.
The film is set in a Southern California town during World War II. A couple's oldest son, London Busbee (David Henrie), is drafted, but is barred from service because of his flat feet. The father, James Busbee (Michael Rapaport), goes instead and his youngest son, Pepper Flynt Busbee, 8, beautifully played by Jakob Salvati, is devastated. Pepper and his father have a very close relationship (they call each other "partner") and almost from the moment his father leaves for war, the child is plotting ways to get him safely home.
After being enthralled by a magician named Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin), Pepper tries magic with some hilarious results.
In church he hears the priest quoting Jesus that if one has faith as tiny as a mustard seed, one can move mountains. Pepper goes to a seed store, finds a mustard seed and takes it to the priest to learn more. When the priest is frustrated by Pepper's questions, another priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), takes over. Father Oliver gives Pepper a list of what he must do as part of a process he hopes will end the war and bring his father home. He is instructed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit someone in prison -- with one addition. There is a man of Japanese ancestry, named Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Though he is a U.S. citizen, everybody in town hates him because of the propaganda directed at Japan following its attack on Pearl Harbor. Father Oliver tells Pepper to make friends with him. Seldom has racism been dealt with more effectively and with a happier outcome.
There are two endings to the film and I won't spoil it by revealing what they are, but if you are not crying in sadness over the first and shedding tears of joy over the second, you may want to have a doctor examine you to see if your heart is where it should be.And if Jakob Salvati doesn't win an Oscar for his performance, there is no justice.
Two of the film's producers are first-generation Mexican immigrants, now American citizens. One of them, Eduardo Verastegui, tells me the film is "a gift to America," in part to "improve the Latino image." He succeeds with that and more.
The film draws on themes embedded deep within America's DNA, but scorned by much of modern culture: patriotism, freedom, faith, forgiveness and reconciliation. In recent years, Hollywood has experimented with storylines that appeal to Middle America. "American Sniper" is the latest. According to Boxofficemojo.com, as of April 6, it has earned more than $346 million.
One funny aside. Working with children on movie sets can be unpredictable. Eduardo Verastegui tells me that on the first day of shooting, Jakob said he didn't want to do it and appealed to his mother. The producers and the director, Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, nearly panicked, but decided bribery might work. So they told Jakob that each time he successfully completed a scene he could have a toy of his choosing. That did the trick and there were no further problems.
Another aside. The producers saw 1,000 children before "discovering" Jakob, who had tagged along to the audition with his older brother. He was noticed and eventually cast in the lead role.
The two writers, the director Monteverde and Pepe Portillo, say they were inspired to write the script after seeing a documentary about World War II.
There's a lot in the news these days to depress Americans and cause some to think our best days are behind us. "Little Boy" will lift you out of any cynicism you might feel about the country's direction and inspire you to believe, like Pepper, that America's best days are ahead and "we can do this."