Jakob Salvati as Pepper Flynt Busbee and Michael Rapaport as...

Jakob Salvati as Pepper Flynt Busbee and Michael Rapaport as James Busbee in "Little Boy." Credit: TNS / Handout

In "Little Boy," Jakob Salvati plays Pepper Flynt Busbee, an 8-year-old whose father, James (Michael Rapaport), has been drafted to fight in World War II. One day, the distraught Pepper performs a miracle -- of sorts -- and begins to believe that he can will his father back home. How? By using the power of faith.

"Little Boy," produced by husband and wife Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the duo behind last year's "Son of God," is ostensibly a faith-based movie. More often than not, that means a sugary cinematic coating around a pill of religious dogma. "Little Boy," however, is something entirely different. Though occasionally sticky sweet and not always subtle, it's also a smart and very moving story about a young boy discovering the power and meaning of faith.

Though Pepper is part of a churchgoing family -- Emily Watson and David Henrie play his mother and older brother -- he mainly worships Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin), a famous magician who one day performs in Pepper's hometown of O'Hare, California. Pepper, chosen as an onstage assistant, "moves" a soda bottle using only his mind and a dramatic flourish, and decides to use his new powers to end the war. Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), seeing a teachable moment, encourages Pepper to strengthen his faith with good deeds, including making friends with Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese man whom Pepper sees as the enemy.

Directed with wry humor by Alejandro Monteverde, "Little Boy" has an excellent cast (Salvati, endearing and a little ferocious, is a discovery) and a surprisingly deep-reaching script by Pepe Portillo. It examines faith from every angle (believers and skeptics alike come in for scrutiny), faces up to the real horrors of war (hence the PG-13 rating) and builds palpable tension as we wonder whether Pepper has been set up for a terrible fall. "Little Boy" has many flaws -- its tone is uneven and its narrative unfocused -- but it's also one of the most insightful films about religion since the 1977 comedy "Oh, God!," which also wrangled with personal beliefs and unprovable truths. "Little Boy" presents a world that feels real but has room for magic, and it allows us, through Pepper, to decide how to live in it.

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