What an odd movie this is – in the way that art’s truest oddities are those that are genuinely out of step with the mainstream. This may have something to do with its director, Alejandro Monteverde, being a Mexican who has not yet had the infection of cynicism corrode his naïve faith in magic realism. He is also, if this is anything to go by, an unashamed Christian who cleverly embodies the tenets of his beliefs in an old Japanese man, Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), as Norman Rockwell’s small-town America exposes its ugly side. The story is as corny as any that you’ll see this year – the ending, in fact, was a little too much for me – but that is part of its gold-lit charm, for, in a way, it dares you to go beyond chic disparagement.
Pepper (Jakob Salvati) is an undersized kid living in cheery, candy-coloured Ohare on the California coast at the outbreak of WWII. Bullied and mocked by his peers, he copes by reverting to a fantasy realm that has been encouraged in him by his father (Michael Rapaport) and a sideshow magician. When Dad is taken as a prisoner of war by the Japs, Pepper is devastated and looks for solace to Hashimoto, who is himself suffering from the locals’ anti-Asian hostility. A master–grasshopper relationship develops between the two, but neither Hashimoto nor the pragmatic priest (Tom Wilkinson) can fully soothe Pepper’s aching heart. Salvation is at hand, however, when the epithet of ‘little boy’, with which he has been so teasingly tagged, comes into play – it’s a classic double entendre that hurts as much as it heals. This is a difficult film to categorise because it refuses to be browbeaten into the sceptical niche that will not allow us to accept anything to do with a supernatural power. The efficacy of imagination has waned in our digital age, but Pepper’s belief moves a mountain and the louder we scoff the more heavily we underline the foolishness of our own certainties.