Little Manhattan may make you cry. It may also get you wiping away the tracks of your tears as the ending credits roll. That way, when the lights come up, no one can tell what you were up to. The film is obvious, it's calculated, it's cheese. But if this love affair between pre-teens doesn't strike some sort of chord on your heartstrings, you may need to set your inner thermostat on defrost.
This story lasts two weeks, "but when you're 11 years old, two weeks can last a lifetime," says Gabe, a fifth-grader on Manhattan's Upper West Side. In Gabe's opinion, he owns the city, by which he means the several-block radius he's actually allowed to ride his scooter sans chaperone. One day, Gabe meets Rosemary Telesco in a karate class. Actually he's re-meeting her, since they went to nursery school together. But when she whips his butt at karate, Gabe suddenly sees her in a new light. His next several days involve just about all the maddening curiosity and awkward confusion someone in their first decade can handle. A Cuban Missile Crisis level of importance is fixed on when that first kiss will come.
The form here is quite familiar and that takes a while to forgive. Movies like A Christmas Story were obvious jumping-off points for the writers. Not surprisingly, director Mark Levin worked as a writer and producer on the TV show "The Wonder Years." Here, he is helming a script written by his wife Jennifer Flackett. Little things happen all throughout the movie that you've seen thousands of times. Early on, when Gabe is falling for Rosemary, he's following her through her house and walks right into a glass door. How did they ever think of that? The setting's annoying too. Anyone familiar with New York City will feel acutely aware that the filmmakers didn't dare set the film in Alphabet City or Washington Heights. The tony neighborhood surrounding Central Park West just north of Lincoln Center is plenty safe for candy-coated reality.
In spite of all this predictability, Little Manhattan begins winning over its audience about midway through, largely on the shoulders of lead actor Josh Hutcherson. This kid is no Tiger Beat hottie-there's something very plain and authentic about the way he speaks and holds himself. He's recognizable. You may hear echoes of your own younger self or that of your best friend from grade school in his insights. These kids are smart and fascinated by their young lives, as actors and characters. As Rosemary, newcomer Charlie Ray is believable. The reason Gabe isn't sure if Rosemary likes him is because Rosemary isn't sure if she likes him. Ray handles that uncertainty spot-on. Spending about 90 minutes with these two does eventually warm the heart, even if they're stuck in a paint-by-numbers plot.