27 October 2005 | noralee
Charming Look at That Confushing Change When Girls Stop Having Cooties
"Little Manhattan" is like a junior version of "Annie Hall" or a Manhattan take on "A Little Romance," which introduced Diane Lane in Paris.
It is a funny, delightful fable of boys and girls interacting with the opposite sex and working and divorcing parents that is a refreshing diversion from the jaundice of New York kids in "The Squid and the Whale." It is an original and marvelous conceit to try and get inside the head of a boy during that summer in the city when the scales are lifted on the perception of girls as givers of cooties to givers of complicated joy.
While married couple, and ex-New Yorkers, writer Jennifer Flackett and director Marc Levin formerly worked on "Wonder Years," and borrow several of those techniques, the bit too wise and nostalgic voice-over narration seems to be coming contemporaneously from the sympathetic Josh Hutcherson as almost 11 year old "Gabe." The object of his attention, Charlie Ray's very self-possessed "Rosemary," seems straight out of "Mad Hot Ballroom," which featured real life kids of the same age discussing similar issues as these kids do about the maturity levels of boys and girls. Such touches as the diverse karate class (the sitcom Ashton Kutscher comparison to the orange belt interloper is very funny) to schoolyard bully keep the film grounded in a kid's experiences, though the visual references to "The Graduate" and "Rebel Without A Cause" are a bit precious even for know-it-all kids.
The affectionate sense of a neighborhood being a kid's whole world is captured literally and through animated graphics diagramming the Upper West Side. This is not much changed from the neighborhood of another Natalie Wood film, her little girl in "Miracle on 34th Street," just with a bit more racial diversity. It's very natural that these folks bump into people they know while shopping at the Fairway specialty supermarket, and there's nice costume touches of worn, local T-shirts from Fordham Law and the American Museum of Natural History. I'm not sure non-New Yorkers will appreciate how Broadway can divide their perceptions such that kids can describe themselves as being Riverside Park kind of people vs. Central Park, but the production design well establishes the comparisons with a hyper-scheduled family, "they must be really committed to public education," who live in a duplex overlooking the latter park with a full-time nanny and treat their daughter to a classic New York experience of a performance at the Cafe Carlyle. (I remember my sons coming home with accounts of similar descriptions of classmate's apartments in comparison with our crowded digs.)
There's lots of "Ally McBeal"-type fantasy/over-active imagination elements, from funny uses of the very NYC streetscape like concert posters and theater marquees, so I had to chalk a bit up to similar fantasy that even sophisticated, "New Yorker"-reading, West End Avenue parents distracted by divorce, at least not as much as the oblivious mother in "E.T.", would let a fifth grader have the run of nine square blocks on his razor scooter (I didn't let my kids going to school in Manhattan loose until into 7th grade). It is shown realistically, and very amusingly, how lost they get on their first, unauthorized trip to the wilds of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village (even his dad feels that's way too far away to live), which recalls another madcap young 'uns in Manhattan George Roy Hill film "The World of Henry Orient." At least the caregivers are appropriately distraught when the kids seek too much freedom.
The musical selections are marvelous throughout, including originals, apt covers and cheerful new songs that capture being young and in love and confused in New York.
Bradley Whitford does parenting more warmly here than he did in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," maybe because he's relating to a boy. Cynthia Nixon is a believable mom with no stereotyped ticks.
We've come a long way in New York City since those same benches on the Broadway malls were shown so frighteningly in "The Panic in Needle Park." With the great bulk of Hollywood movies about kids of this age taking place in seemingly anonymous suburbs or bucolic exurbs where everyone lives in McMansions with SUVs, and indie films focusing on dysfunctional or otherwise deprived families, it is a pleasure to see such a sweet film about normal,yeah, middle class, city kids.
But you don't have to have been a city kid to remember that first crush and this charming film will bring all those euphoric feelings and embarrassing memories rushing back to adult viewers. Reminds me that I owe a certain Eddie L. an apology. . .