Release Date:  April 4, 2006
Rating:  PG (mild thematic elements and brief language)
Genre:  Family Comedy
Run Time: 84 min.
Director:  Mark Levin
Actors:  Josh Hutcherson, Charlie Ray, Cynthia Nixon, Bradley Whitford and Willie Garson

Ah, puppy love – the agony and the ecstasy.  Do you remember?

Gabe (Josh Hutcherson“Kicking and Screaming”) is your average 10 ½ year old boy, living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  He goes to school, plays with his friends and rides a scooter around the nine-block perimeter mapped out by his parents, Adam (Bradley Whitford, “The West Wing”) and Leslie (Cynthia Nixon, “Sex and the City”).  Dad and Mom are in the midst of a divorce, but because real estate is so expensive in New York, they’re still living together.  Adam sleeps on the couch.

This situation is teaching Gabe, who narrates the story throughout, some powerful lessons about life.  “Love ends,” he says, unequivocally.  “Want proof?  Just check out my parent’s refrigerator.”  The fridge he refers to is divided – and clearly labeled – into Leslie’s food and Adam's food.   And just like real life, never the ‘twain shall meet.

Another division in Gabe’s life is the one between girls and boys, which occurred after first grade, he says, when “the iron curtain” came down between the sexes.  “Girls were there,” he says.  “I just didn’t see them.  I lived in a world of men.”  So, while Gabe has known Rosemary (Charlie Ray), the “third prettiest girl” in his fifth-grade class, since kindergarten, he hasn’t really noticed her.  One day, all that changes when she arrives for karate practice.  Gabe’s heart starts thumping – a very strange feeling, but one that he likes.  A lot.

Rosemary, the daughter of wealthy television producers, is being raised by her nanny.  She’s better than Gabe at karate, but offers to help him.  Together, they practice, as an imaginary Kung-Fu master/mentor gives Gabe invisible lessons and advice.  “Kiss her!” he orders, after Gabe pins Rosemary to the floor.  But the young boy is far too shy, and the moment passes.  He and Rosemary spend lots of time together during the next two weeks, exploring Gabe’s “territory” and once venturing out to see a potential apartment for his dad – which gets him grounded.  Gabe still can’t bring himself to kiss Rosemary, however he does hold her hand – once.  Then he learns that she’s going to camp for the rest of the summer, and he’s devastated.  Will he ever have the courage to tell her the truth about his feelings?  And will she reciprocate?

Director Mark Levin, co-producer of the late '80s television series, “The Wonder Years,” which also dealt with the angst of coming of age, understands what it means to be a lovesick adolescent boy, and hits all the right notes.  I wasn’t sure about the annoying switches between color and black-and-white cinematography throughout the film, but I certainly enjoyed his sanitized view of New York City, however unrealistic it may be.  And I’m sure many men will relate to Gabe – although I can’t help but wonder if boys of that age will find this far too “icky” to be interested.

Levin’s wife, screenwriter Jennifer Flackett“Wimbledon”), knows how to write a screenplay.  My only criticism is the way that Gabe’s thoughts and words are filtered through an adult lens, as well as the sense that it took place many years ago.  For example, the scene where he and Rosemary sit, listen to and enjoy (!) the cabaret performance of Loston Harris singing “Teach Me Tonight” while drinking Shirley Temples, seems straight out of the '50s. 

Written for families, the film doesn’t have any adult situations, and only a few mild curses.  Thankfully, it also doesn’t hinge upon the ridiculous plot contortions which hamper adult romantic comedies, making them so absurd and, ironically, so childish.  Instead, “Little Manhattan’s” plot development relies on the meanderings of human emotion, especially during adolescence.  We empathize with Gabe and Rosemary, and his parents.  And we believe in them.

Hutcherson does a decent job with his role, making us root for him (although his one crying scene was very forced).  Newcomer Charlie Ray is excellent, striking the right chord as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood.  Nixon and Whitford also give strong performances as Gabe’s loving, but not overly intrusive, parents.  And Wille Garson, another “Sex in the City” refugee, makes an appearance as well, as the (heterosexual) elevator man.

This is a romantic comedy, but it’s not about kids.  It’s about love.  As Gabe says, at the end, “Love isn’t about silly little words.  It’s about going the extra mile, even when it hurts.  It’s about letting it all hang out.  It’s about finding courage inside of you, even you didn’t know it was there.”

“Little Manhattan” is not a film that offers profound insights into life, but it does remind us that sometimes, answers are much easier than we think.  It will also take you back to that terrible, wonderful time when you were just starting to discover – and believe in – love, for the very first time.

Starring Josh Hutcherson, Charlie Ray, Cynthia Nixon, Bradley Whitford and Willie Garson, "Little Manhattan" releases on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment on Tuesday, April 4, 2006.  Click here for more information.