Faith-based film's critics reveal interesting questions about non-believers understanding of prayer.
Little Boy is a faith-based film that raises questions not only about faith, but about films. Produced by Catholic writer, actor and director Eduardo Verástegui, the film is a sincere, but not wholly successful attempt to show faith at work in a family hit by tragedy.
When his dad enlists in the army and disappears to fight the Japanese, seven-year-old Pepper Busbee’s world is shattered. Wanting to get his Dad back, he learns that magic won’t work, so he turns to faith. A kindly priest played by Tom Wilkinson explains that faith involves not just prayer, but helping others. Pepper’s big challenge is to avoid the town bullies and befriend a Japanese man ostracized by the community and scapegoated by his angry older brother. Eventually his prayers are answered in ways he could never have expected.
Secular critics panned the film because they thought the religious elements were handled in a preachy, heavy-handed way. They disliked the overt morality and they thought the “answers to prayer” were unbelievable and corny.
Their criticisms of the film raise interesting questions about the way non-believers perceive the process and meaning of prayer. Many people dismiss the possibility of prayer because they have a wrong idea about how prayer works. Stuck in an infantile understanding, they assume that God is like a cosmic vending machine: put your prayer in the slot at the top and what you want drops into the tray below. The unbeliever sees prayer as a kind of magic—through which a believer makes a wish and a fairy godmother or a “Father in Heaven” grants their wish if they are good boy or girl.
The film was therefore an interesting study in prayer and how it works. It is no mistake that the desperate little boy in the film is first entranced by a traveling magician and hopes that he will get his father to return through magic. He learns that magic doesn’t work, and through a wise priest learns that faith is always linked with good works. Pepper learns how prayer and faith really work by reaching out to the persecuted Japanese man in the town. He learns that prayer can be answered as he learns to love his enemy.
The film does show prayers being answered, but they are not answered through stupendous supernatural events. The clouds do not part so that angels may be lowered down to answer Pepper’s prayers. Instead his prayers are answered through natural occurrences which, through the eyes of faith, he can see are part of God’s greater plan.
For example, his unbelieving brother quotes the Bible saying that if he has faith he can move mountains. As the boy prays an earthquake happens just at the right time. When Pepper prays for the war to end so his father can come home they learn that the atomic bomb bore the name “little boy”. Finally it is through the case of mistaken identity that his father, who was thought to be dead, in fact survived.
Little Boy therefore reveals that faith is a way of seeing the world. With eyes of faith one can see God’s will working its way through the world in ways hidden to those who do not have the eyes of faith. The film reinforces this alternative way of seeing and hammers home the gospel lesson that “unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Ironically, it was exactly this point which the secular critics disliked. Unable to accept the alternative way of seeing the world, they were also unable to see the true value of this simple, but powerful film. Eduardo Verástegui and Metanoia films are to be congratulated for taking a risk in the hard bitten and hard work world of Hollywood.
My criticism of the film is at a deeper level. I’m not sure whether the filmmakers were clear in their own minds about whether the film was fantasy or realism. Sometimes it seemed like we were in a sentimental, make believe film. At other times there was an attempt at gritty realism. While the sentimentality brought the desired heart warming emotion, it also weakened what could have been a more realistic and believable mood, and if the whole film had been more gritty the impact of the answered prayers would have been greater. Although Little Boy is not perfect, it is still worth watching and discussing because, despite the problems, like all good art, it unlocks a new perspective and helps you see the world through God enchanted eyes of a child.