Why Haven’t You Seen…? Little Manhattan

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Dir: Mark Levin / Jennifer Flackett

What’s It All About?
Gabe (Josh Hutcherson) is ten and three quarters, and pretty happy, that is, until he falls for eleven year old Rosemary Telesco (Charlie Ray), when she joins his karate class. Over the first three weeks of summer vacation, Gabe discovers both the excitement and the pain of first love.

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
It’s not as though adults don’t see kids films, but, in the age of Pixar and Shrek, that tends to mean animated films. Live action films focused on and suitable for kids have died something of a box office death, and Little Manhattan was little different. A lack of star power and a clever, subtle, poster (pictured below) probably didn’t do much to help.

Why Should You See It?
More so than almost any rom-com of the past decade that concerned adult characters, Little Manhattan is heartfelt, funny and true.

I sometimes wonder how many adults really remember what it was like to be a kid. Little Manhattan at least seems to be written and directed by people – married couple Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett – who remember what it felt like to be 10 or 11; the sense of possibility, the hugeness of the world, and the sometimes painful process of learning about adult emotions for the first time (which Gabe does both through his feelings for Rosemary and his divorcing parents, played by Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon). Much of Little Manhattan‘s humour comes from this honesty, and the recognition it achieves from us the audience, particularly through Gabe’s voiceover; which has a slightly world weary Woody Allen tone to it, which is hilarious coming from a ten year old.

This device could easily have fallen flat, could easily have felt like the two middle aged writers putting their voices in Gabe’s mouth. That it doesn’t is a testament to how fine a young actor Josh Hutcherson is. Hutcherson turned in a strong performance last year in The Kids are All Right, but he’d been impressing with mature beyond his years work for some time before that. Gabe isn’t an easy or typical role, point of fact with the crying scenes and other displays of emotion it is probably a more typical female role (an irritating thing about Hollywood being its lack of acknowledgement, much of time, that men also have emotions). Hutcherson carries it off brilliantly, and seems to bring real understanding to what Gabe’s going through (he was 11 at shooting, so it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been going through it himself to some degree). It’s complex piece of acting from one so young, but Hutcherson sells every beat from the slapstick to Gabe’s deep sorrow when, in a fit of pique, he tells Rosemary that he hates her.

Charlie Ray, who plays Rosemary, had never acted before – indeed had never been to an audition before – going up for this role, and has done very little since. That’s a shame, because she’s very good here; pretty, sweet and spunky, you can see why Gabe’s head is turned. Even more importantly, the two play off each other nicely, with an easy chemistry that seems very organic and powers what otherwise might be rather mundane moments like the tour of Central Park that Gabe takes Rosemary on.

While the film focuses on this relationship, it never forgets that its main characters are ten and eleven, never forgets to let the be kids. To that end you have Gabe’s fantasy mentor; a martial artist who pops up to give him encouragement, and that very typical argument that ten year olds have “I hate you!” “Yeah! Well, I hate you!” What’s interesting is that this argument also seems to happen at the end of the second act of every rom-com about adults, where it always rings false, because those characters aren’t ten, but here it works. There may not be much unexpected here, though, happily, the ending doesn’t pretend that these two are walking off into the sunset forever, but it’s all executed so well that it’s hard to mind the slight lack of originality.

The script is maybe my favourite thing here; smart and funny, it often rings true for me, and seldom more so than with Gabe’s last voiceover, which is, like much of the film, something I think any adult who remembers being a kid can identify with.

How Can You See It?
Both UK and US DVDs are available, and both are quite reasonably priced, and include a decent smattering of extras, particularly a good commentary from the writer/director pair of Levin and Flackett.

Next Week: Low budget British horror in Mum and Dad (Steven Shiel, 2008)