Film Review: A Little Game

Would-be whimsical serio-comedy about a Greenwich Village ten-year-old who learns about chess and life from a stranger she meets in a park.

The saying "It's not what you know, it's who you know" hovers over the twee and tedious A Little Game like a lotta luck: As writer-director Evan Oppenheimer describes in his press notes, his daughters were classmates or school friends with the son of producer Michael Mailer, the son of executive producer Edward Schmidt and the granddaughter of star F. Murray Abraham at New York City's P.S. 41, a.k.a. the famed Greenwich Village School. Getting any independent film made does require luck as much as anything, and Oppenheimer himself seems a highly accomplished and deserving person—a Yale graduate, an Atheneum Books editor, an NYU Tisch School of the Arts filmmaker. But this is his fifth film. He should have the basics down by now.

Some of his bad moves in this chess serio-comedy include an opening voiceover that simply tells you what could easily be shown—the lazy filmmaker's shortcut—and digressions from the narrative that just add padding. One cringe-worthy scene involves the young heroine's friend scamming a passerby; the character's scam never has anything to do with the story ever again, and the character himself has virtually no impact on the story anyway. And when the filmmaker himself (and even the end credits) makes a big deal about shooting in New York City and has characters harping about the real New York and being a real "city kid," then don't show a nonexistent White Castle in Greenwich Village.

I'm beginning to sound as grouchy as Norman Wallach, the latest in the cinema's oh-so-original line of crusty but lovable codgers. Playing an old guy who sits by himself every day behind a chessboard in Washington Square Park, Abraham does a miraculous job in a nearly impossible role that requires him to de-creepify such lines as "It's lucky for you I love kids so much." And given that he's directing this line to a precocious ten-year-old girl in a private-school uniform who walks home alone, the fact it doesn't scream "stranger danger" should earn him another Oscar.

That girl is Max Kuftinec (Makenna Ballard), who lives in the Village with her mom (Janeane Garofalo), a cook or chef in what seems an upscale restaurant; her dad (Ralph Macchio), an apartment-building super; and her little sister Jez (Fina Strazza). When her parents transfer her from P.S. 41 to the fictional Blackstone Academy in some unspecified neighborhood a subway ride away, and when a tragedy befalls her grandmother (Olympia Dukakis), Max starts to ask questions about life, the universe and everything. Without giving spoilers, there's someone much, much more appropriate than her father whom she could have asked about the afterlife, and who may or may not have had answers but whom it would have made sense to ask.

Max does get answers, in a way, from Norman, who agrees to teach her chess. The game quickly becomes a metaphor for life and change, and in case we don't get it, the characters frequently talk on the subject of metaphors, life and change. It all builds up to Max waging a chess match against mean girl Isabella (Fatima Ptacek), who's more over-the-top smarmily evil than the rich frat guys in Revenge of the Nerds. Punctuating all this are attempts at whimsy in the form of street conversations that seem to speak to Max directly and omens that reek of Fellini parody. The cutesiness extends to the credits, which include "The Statue of Liberty…Herself." I'm not making this up.

There's a sprinkling of good dialogue ("I've been beating him since before you were born." "That's not very long.") amid the tin-ear stuff, which includes a borderline-racist portrayal of a somewhat slow-witted black man (Franklin Ojeda Smith) whom Norman treats like dirt. And there's a beautiful, evocative shot of Max sitting contemplatively in the recess yard while schoolmates run around out of focus. But the saving grace aside from watching Abraham skillfully skim the abyss is film newcomer Ballard. Delivering her lines with a seeming casualness that appears to acknowledge how ridiculous so much of the story is and then gamely rising above it, she makes Max convincing and real against all odds. Yet, as far as New York movies about preteen chess players go, Boaz Yakim’s 1994 indie Fresh still checkmates all comers.

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