Oh, Ye Films of Little Faith
A couple of weeks ago, I planted my East Coast, liberal, college-educated, godless Jew ass down at a showing of the new faith-driven film Little Boy. Morbid curiosity had gotten the better of me; word on the street was that it was bad, like, surreally bad, even worse than the more dismissive early critics had initially assumed. # And indeed it was. Readers concerned about Little Boy spoilers (though, to what extent can a writer in 2015 spoil the outcome of World War II, really?) may feel free to excuse themselves at this time.
Pepper Flynt Busbee is the unusually small youngster that lends the film its title, and not, as his name might suggest, the female romantic lead in a screwball comedy. His beloved pops gets sent to fight in the Pacific theater during WWII in place of Pepper’s flat-footed older brother, who takes to the evils of drink to dull the pain left by his father’s absence. Desperate for his father’s safe return and distraught by his wayward brother, Pepper turns to the Lord for guidance. Conflating advice from a friendly neighborhood priest (Tom Wilkinson) with a traveling magician (Ben Chaplin, no relation to Charlie), young Pep comes to believe that when he concentrates the power of prayer by squinching up his eyes and focusing really really hard, he can make the impossible possible.
Long story short, Pep prays so hard in the general direction of the Pacific Ocean that he incinerates Hiroshima.
Yes, the film posits the atomic devastation that ended the worst war the world has ever known as the direct-ish result of a little boy’s faith in the Almighty. Director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde then cuts to a horrifying dream sequence that finds Pepper weeping openly as he walks through the charred remains of the city that he annihilated, blackened bodies of children dotting the postapocalyptic landscape. It’s a little much, though in no way out of the ordinary in the frequently ridiculous, over-the-top religious films taking cinemas by storm.
Heavy-handed storytelling is an integral part of the Christian tradition. # In the canonical New Testament, Jesus Christ spreads the good news of the liberating light of God’s embrace through bare-bones analogies designed to illustrate a simple moral. They’re not gripping yarns, more function than style-oriented. In the Gospel of Luke, for instance, our humble narrator recounts Christ dropping some heaven-sent knowledge on the masses:
He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:3-7)
This parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Lost Sheep, demonstrates the vital importance of returning the faithful who have strayed to the flock. # Christ doesn’t beat around the burning bush, either. He draws a simple scenario with easily understood symbolic components, and then makes his thematic intentions explicit with the last sentence. His parables aren’t entertainment, they’re instructive. As such, Christ doesn’t gussy up his lesson with the theatricality of the oral tradition. The guy’s the son of God, for God’s sake. He’s got charisma out the wazoo, it’s not as if he was struggling to hold anyone’s attention.
The same cannot be said of such religious films as Little Boy, Heaven Is For Real, and God’s Not Dead. Movies, no matter how front-and-center their religious agenda, must necessarily entice cheeks into the seats. The core trouble with Little Boy (setting aside the craziness outlined above, which is a whole different other thing) is that it takes its cues on narration from the Bible. The Bible’s a fascinating document, but as literature, it’s a somewhat misshapen read. There are pages upon pages of so-and-so begetting what’s-his-name, endlessly repetitive passages about what a man is and is not permitted to do with his daughter, # and digressions that go nowhere and contribute little. Levying these criticisms at the Bible is a silly exercise; the book’s a source of spiritual guidance, not gripping prose or masterful narrative structure.
Regardless, Little Boy operates on a similar wavelength. It brings the moral absolutes and glaring symbolism of the parable into the new environment of film, one that’s decidedly unkind to those elements of storytelling. When not found in a document thousands of years old, such simplicity comes off as lazy writing. Pepper’s older brother, for instance, serves the story as a manifestation of moral corruption. He drinks with older men around town and spews hateful invective at the town’s only Japanese citizen. That’s all he’s got going on. He’s frustrated by his father’s involvement in the war and has subsequently strayed from the flock.
There are other examples, some flagrantly reductive enough to qualify as offensive. At one point, Pepper goes to visit the sick on assignment from the town priest. Pepper sits momentarily by a wounded soldier, who seems grateful for the boy’s attention. We learn nothing else about this man, not his name, not his background, nothing. He might as well be a prop, a damaged good for young Pepper to grace with his presence before prancing off to fulfill the next task. This sort of thing would fly in the Bible, a transparent statement on the virtue of aiding the ailing. In movies, it’s not allowed to be that simple. The soldier’s not a device, he’s a person. We’re playing with human lives.
Left-field nuclear devastation notwithstanding, Little Boy’s got other problems. The idyllic Californian town in which the film takes place might as well be made of cardboard. Characters are allotted one dimension apiece if that, and Monteverde spells out the film’s blatantly obvious meaning in stories-tall lightbulb-lined letters. Obviousness, in a broader sense, defines Little Boy. Subtext has no place in Monteverde’s black-and-white morality, because Little Boy and the comparably Christian-minded films that have squeezed untold millions # out of middle American believers aren’t films. They’re parables, and facile simplicity to the point of insult is the parable’s stock-in-trade. These films reshape the Bible into modern entertainment, but the narrative strategies in translations of the good book don’t translate across media especially well.
Plenty of films have ably combined Christian morality with subtlety and nuance, updating the sermonizing to fit the present-day demand for competent storytelling. I defy a reader to track down a Martin Scorsese film that doesn’t touch upon sin, penance, or redemption in some capacity. In Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, God throws a goddamn plague of locusts at trifling mortals who sin with deceit. Subtext, ultimately, separates films about Christianity from Christian film. Little Boy shoves its religious ambitions in the audience’s face. Monteverde needs to have a little faith in his viewers to get there themselves.
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