In a seaside town “like you see in postcards” in 1940s California, eight-year-old Pepper Flynt Busbee (Jakob Salvati: Escape from Tomorrow) is sad, because his best friend — his father (Michael Rapaport: The Heat, Hitch) — has gone off to fight against the Japs in the Pacific. Mom (Emily Watson: Everest, A Royal Night Out) was always the one to bring the two buddies back down to Earth from their pretend adventures, but she cannot stop Pepper now: he has been convinced by comic-book and movie-serial hero Ben Eagle the Magician (Ben Chaplin: Cinderella, War Book) and local priest Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson: Unfinished Business, Selma) that he really can do magic, but he has to build up to the big kind of sorcery that will end the war and bring Dad home again.
The simple-minded sap of Little Boy is the usual sort of crass and offensive for quite a long while: as a way to increase the kid’s Jesus-fueled magic powers, the priest assigns Pepper the task of being nice to the only Japanese person in town, who is being subjected to the most awful abuse from “patriotic” white Americans, and so Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa: The Man in the High Castle, 47 Ronin) becomes a sort of Asian equivalent of a magic Negro, a patient, tolerant, kindly, and wise exotic figure who is naturally perfectly happy to guide to enlightenment a snotty little white child who had previously stated, “If I could I would smash every Jap with my bare hands.”
But writer (with Pepe Portillo) and director Alejandro Monteverde has only just gotten started: he is determined to give us a shamefully miscalculated tale of whimsy, childhood fantasy, and come-to-Jesus inspiration, and he is not interested in half measures. So when Pepper, who is small for his age and is taunted by the other kids as “Little Boy” — which isn’t a very effective taunt, but bear with Monteverde — learns that Japan is directly across the ocean from his town, he aims all the magical power he has been developing in that direction. And almost instantly comes the news that the war is over thanks to a new kind of weapon, a bomb called — wait for it — “Little Boy,” which fills the townspeople with awe at Pepper’s powers. You see, Pepper wished hard enough, and God rained down nuclear hellfire on the people of Japan, and now Pepper’s father can come home. Isn’t that lovely?
Through Little Boy’s bizarrely inappropriate haze of Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia and youthful wonder, you can almost hear Monteverde marveling that no one had beaten him to the concept of connecting a child’s uplifting emotional adventure with terrible weapons that destroy entire cities. As this appalling movie demonstrates, there are very good reasons for that.