Voters at the Toronto International Film Festival created a stir in 2006 when they gave the long-shot drama "Bella" the People's Choice Award, a prestigious salute that often precedes Oscar nominations.
Then critics began focusing on a key detail: The unmarried waitress at the heart of the indie flick's plot struggles to decide whether to have an abortion, but then decides not to after being befriended by Jose, a former soccer star with a complex, tragic past. Also, the film was drawing public support from pro-life groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Was this a "Christian," or even "anti-abortion" movie? Meanwhile, a New York Times review called "Bella" a "mediocre cup of mush" and an "urban fairy tale."
"The minute someone wrote that this was a 'pro-life' movie, there were some people who set out to destroy it," said Eduardo Verastegui, who played Jose. "We saw 'Bella' as a movie about faith and family in Latino communities and the importance of relationships built on respect. … But soon people were talking about the labels, instead of our movie."
Now the same creative team is back with "Little Boy," an indie film about faith, family, friendship and the ties that bind, along with one or two near-miraculous plot twists. Once again, writer-director Alejandro Monteverde, actor-producer Verastegui and other "Bella" veterans are headed into the tense territory that divides theater seats and sanctuary pews. "Little Boy" hits theaters on April 25, after early screenings backed by churches, veterans groups and nonprofits that help the poor and homeless.
This parable, set in a small California town during World War II, centers on a boy who seeks divine intervention when his soldier father is captured and sent to a Japanese prison camp. In a pivotal scene, the "little boy" asks his priest: "How could I get bigger faith?" Rather than promising a miracle, Father Oliver, played by Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson, gives him an "ancient list" of good deeds that help build faith.
"For centuries people believed that if you do this list it'll make your faith powerful," says the priest. "This is what you have to do: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit those in prison, clothe the naked …"
"Naked?" the boy responds.
"Visit the sick, and bury the dead," adds the priest.
The "Little Boy" cast includes Wilkinson, Oscar-nominee Emily Watson, Kevin "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" James, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Verastegui and other mainstream actors. However, critics will surely note that its executive producers include Roma "Touched by an Angel" Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, best known as the powers behind the 2013 television miniseries "The Bible" and the current "A.D. The Bible Continues." Also, Monteverde and Verastegui work through a production company called Metanoia Films. The ancient Greek word "metanoia" refers to life changes inspired to repentance and spiritual conversion.
Verastegui stressed that there is no need to deny the role that faith plays in this film and in the lives of some of its creators. The question is whether mainstream artists today can -- as they did in Hollywood's past -- make family-friendly movies about these kinds of stories without being stuck with a "Christian movie" label that many view as limiting, if not a cultural curse.
"We see this as an American story, with a universal message, that happens to have been made by Mexicans," said Verastegui, the son of a sugar-cane farmer near Xicotencatl, a village in northern Mexico. The movie is "almost a tribute to that whole Norman Rockwell side of America. … If people have to label this movie, they can start there."
Test screenings have been good, he said, and that includes the kind of spiritual reactions that don't show up in endorsement quotes in advertisements.
"You may hear from someone who says, 'This movie helped me forgive my father.' Or maybe its, 'This movie made me want to spend more time with my family,' or 'This movie helped me decide to keep my baby,' or 'This movie made me want to help the poor and the needy.'
"If people are going to say things like that after seeing this film, then thanks be to God. That will be our Oscar. … We are very open about our goals. We want to tell a story that brings some healing and unity and hope and charity. That's the deal."