HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (Christian Examiner) -- It has been 8 years since Metanoia Films released "Bella," a small-budget film that was a big hit for its size – and one that made me cry like a baby both times I saw it.
It still ranks among my Top 3 inspiring movies of all time, although Metanoia's long-anticipated second movie, which releases in theaters this weekend, could be a contender.
The movie is "Little Boy" (PG-13), a 1940s-era story that follows a 7-year-old boy named Pepper who is devastated when his father is shipped off to World War II.
Facing pessimism from friends and family members that his dad won't make it back alive, Pepper -- who, as the film's name implies, is quite small in stature -- learns to have a giant faith and to draw strength from Jesus' words in Matthew 17:20: "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.'"
A priest's sermon on that verse, combined with an amazing magic show in which Pepper is called up onto stage and actively participates, leads him to believe anything is possible.
Of course, we shouldn't get our theology from magic shows, but if you view the film through the eyes of a tiny kid, the movie's plot works wonderfully -- and may just make you cry.
It is a family friendly movie with an all-star cast and crew, with Roma Downey & Mark Burnett ("The Bible," "A.D.") serving as executive producers; Alejandro Monteverde ("Bella") as director; and Eduardo Verastegui ("Bella") one of the producers.
The cast features Oscar nominees Emily Watson ("The Book Thief," "War Horse") and Tom Wilkinson ("Batman Begins," "John Adams"), along with Kevin James ("The King of Queens," "Paul Blart: Mall Cop.").
Verastegui, who founded Metanoia Films and played the lead male role in "Bella," said the crew was "wanting to capture the heart and soul of America in a movie."
"Anyone can relate to the story of Little Boy," he told Christian Examiner. "We all need to wake up the little boy we have in our hearts. When we grow up, we no longer love big and dream big and forgive big. Hopefully, people will leave the movie inspired, wanting to love more and judge less, forgive more and complain less."
Verastegui's story itself is inspirational. He was once a Latino heartthrob, making a living in Spanish-language soap operas and movies such as "Chasing Papi," which spotlighted a man who was dating three women. He even played Jennifer Lopez's love interest in the music video for her 2001 song "Ain't It Funny."
But it was during the filming for "Chasing Papi" that his English language coach began asking him probing questions about his path in life.
Verastegui realized that "whether I like it not," those movies, TV shows and music videos "affected how people think, how they behave." The impact his career was having, he decided, was not positive.
"Right then, I made a promise to God that I would never use my talents again that would reflect badly on my faith, my family or my Latino culture," he said.
Not receiving any offers that lined with his beliefs, he took matters into his own hands and founded Metanoia Films.
"My idea was to put together a company with one goal: to make movies that make a difference in people's lives," he said.
"Bella" won awards from the Toronto International Film Festival and the Heartland Film Festival, and worldwide grossed ($12 million) nearly four times its budget ($3.3 million).
"Little Boy" had a much larger budget, $20 million, and it's evident on screen, with impressive sets and special effects, as well as outstanding performances from several well-known actors and actresses.
But it is the star of the movie, young actor Jakob Salvati (the "little boy"), who carries the film. He's a natural talent, with amazing facial expressions.
When he grimaced, I grimaced, and when he pouted, I wanted to do the same. And when he cried? I, too, wanted to cry – and even climb through the screen and hug him, as I would my own two sons.
Amazingly, he was in the film only by accident. Salvati had tagged along with his brother for a "Little Boy" tryout, when the crew noticed the younger Salvati in the background and asked: Could we take a look at him?
"Little Boy" is easily one of the best family friendly films ever made. It has just enough humor to soften the emotional moments, and it has plenty of moral and ethical lessons families can take home to discuss.
Among the lessons is on racism. The predominantly white town where Pepper resides loathes Japanese people, with Pepper himself helping lead the charge -- even tossing rocks at a Japanese immigrant's house. But a priest confronts Pepper's racism, and the boy befriends the immigrant, Hashimoto, in spite of ridicule from others.
The movie also tackles the relationship between works and faith – that is, Pepper's belief that God will bring his father home if he simply has a strong enough faith.
The priest tells Pepper that such matters are "up to" God, but Pepper responds: "If I have enough faith, nothing's impossible, right?"
Pepper asks: "How can I get bigger faith?" The priest gives the boy an "ancient list" of seven works -- among them, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked -- that could give the boy a more "powerful" faith.
It left me wondering: Is this similar to what James referenced when he said "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20)? There's no doubt that we are called to do great deeds, and that such works can draw the Christian closer to God. Still, we must be careful so as not to turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus. This certainly is a good topic for a family discussion -- or a church small group.
"Bella" was a marvelous film, but many moviegoers will walk away believing "Little Boy" is even better.
I gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars.
"Little Boy" opens in theaters April 24.
"Little Boy" has no sexuality or crude or profane language. It is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, including violence.
Michael Foust has covered the faith film industry for a decade and has been a full-time editor and writer for 20 years. He blogs at MichaelFoust.com