Why 20th Century Fox is releasing "Little Manhattan," the most gloriously enchanting family film of the year, so slowly around the country and in such a limited capacity is anybody's guess. A love letter to both New York and the joys and pains of first love, this is a giant sweetheart of a moviea lightning-in-a-bottle rarity that will entertain adults as much as it will children (around eight and up) all the while never once talking down to any age group. This isn't merely a cutesy, lightweight romp (like, for example, Disney Channel series'), either, but a heartfelt, realistic, deeply touching motion picture that gets just right the feeling of being eleven years old and discovering your first pangs of romantic affection.
That is exactly what happens to Gabe (Josh Hutcherson), a boy on the cusp of adolescence who is enjoying a carefree summer of hanging out with his guy friends on the Upper West Side of Manhattan until Rosemary (Charlie Ray), a classmate he has known since kindergarten, shows up in his beginners karate class. Once friends before the whole cooties epidemic hit in the first grade, Gabe suddenly sees Rosemary in a whole new light. He doesn't quite know what it is, but his racing heart every time he looks at her is a feeling he likes. Paired up as sparring partners, they soon become good friends againspending time at each other's homes, going to Central Park, secretly journeying downtown to the Village to check out a possible home for Gabe's father, Adam (Bradley Whitford), who is currently going through a divorce with mother Leslie (Cynthia Nixon). With Rosemary headed to camp in just a few weeks, however, Gabe begins to fear that this may be his one and only chance to tell her how he feels about her.
It is no surprise that first-time director Mark Levin was once a producer on TV's "The Wonder Years," one of the great coming-of-age shows of probably all time. That same sense of unforced human comedy and profound nostalgia runs rampant through "Little Manhattan," as does a voice-over from Gabe that perfects the mindframe and running thoughts of an 11-year-old boy. Gabe begins by warning the viewer that the story won't be filled with wine and roses, and is bound to end, as all puppy loves do, in pain and misery. While there is a soft fantasy element within the surroundings of New York CityGabe tells Rosemary at one point (and is visualized for the viewer) how he used to imagine a building seen from Central Park was really a pirate ship that could sail off into the skythe film subjectively sticks to truth and doesn't sugarcoat the culmination of Gabe and Rosemary's relationship. The New York City on view is sanitized to fit a PG rating, but not overly so; it fits the tone flawlessly, and plays at times like a travelogue of locations that have rarely been captured so appealingly on film.
Director Mark Levin and screenwriter Jennifer Flackett (2004's "Wimbledon
") key into the trials and tribulations of being a tween with such affectionately detailed accuracy that the picture almost makes you want to stand up and cheer. Gabe, for example, has to suffer through being mistaken for his mom every time he picks up the phone, especially horrific when it is Rosemary who mistakes their voices. Gabe is also afraid of being made fun of by his friends for hanging out with a girl, so he tries to hide the time they spend togethera plot point that refreshingly is touched upon and never made into a big deal. Meanwhile, as the two become closer, Gabe grapples with garnering the courage to kiss her, something that he finds himself chickening out with. When they attend a concert with Rosemary's parents and finally hold hands for the first time, it is a purely magical moment. As the summer wears on and Rosemary's departure for camp draws near, Gabe grows all the more sure that he loves her. But, when the time comes to express his feelings, Rosemary's reaction to the news avoids going over-the-top or warm and fuzzy, and is played just right. She is, after all, still just a kid who isn't quite ready to start quote-unquote "dating."
As lovely and sensitive as the writing and directing are, "Little Manhattan" lives or dies on Josh Hutcherson's (2005's "Kicking and Screaming
") performance as Gabe. In every scene and having to convey a world of emotions not only on his face, but through the voice of his narration, Hutcherson is absolutely winning. This isn't affected child acting, but a carefully modulated turn from a young performer with big things in his future. Hutcherson is a pro at physical comedy, but also bravely drops his guard and bares himself on the screen in some honest and emotional ways. If there was ever a prequel to "Say Anything...," one could imagine John Cusack's hopeless romantic Lloyd Dobler being just like Gabe.
In an auspicious film debut, Charlie Ray is naturalistic and effervescent, every bit Hutcherson's match as object-of-desire Rosemary. A girl who is mostly cared for by her nanny (her parents are big-time soap opera producers who are rarely home), Rosemary tells Gabe at one point that people keep telling her she is going to hate her parents in a few years. "Think you will?" Gabe asks. Rosemary's response: "Probably, if people say so." In key supporting roles, Bradley Whitford (2005's "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
") and Cynthia Nixon (2002's "Igby Goes Down
") breathe life into Gabe's parents. That both of Gabe's parents are still living is worth applauding, but that they are treated as real people with real problems, and that their relationship with their son is portrayed as a close, caring one, is a miracle for the family genre.
Funny, how every year there are several dozen romantic comedies released featuring adults trapped in dumbed-down, condescending screenplays that treat them as children, and it takes a love story between two fifth graders to put them all to shame. "Little Manhattan" is mature, knowledgeable, and intelligent in its treatment of the story between Gabe and Rosemary. There are no misunderstandings or false crises to muck up the proceedings, director Mark Levin wisely trusting the strength of his material to play itself out in fresh and spontaneous ways. When his young age does eventually get the best of him, and Gabe finds himself in one scene angrily telling Rosemary that he hates her over the phone (he clearly doesn't really), they are words that sting with the harsh memories of childhood immaturity.
From frame one to the final scenes scored magnificently to a cover of The Beatles' "In My Life," "Little Manhattan" is in the hands of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he is doing, where he is headed, and how to get there. Although there is a happy ending of sorts, it is certainly not the one that audiences will be expecting or a lesser film would have conceived. Instead, it's better than that, the conclusion hitting all the right notes with such an emotionally resonating assuredness that, admittedly, this reviewer had to try mightily hard to clench back the tears. "Little Manhattan," not just a kid's movie by any stretch of the imagination and transcending all age demographics, is a beautiful, layered, uplifting, dizzyingly romantic motion picture that will hit close to home for anyone who is, or has ever been, an 11-year-old on the verge of growing up. This is one of the year's very best films, and one of its most unexpected cinematic treasures.