'A Little Game': Film Review

Derek McKane
If nothing else, it might encourage younger children to take up the game

A ten-year-old girl receives lessons in life and chess from an irascible old man in Evan Oppenheimer's family-friendly drama

Chess lessons become metaphorical life lessons in Evan Oppenheimer's family-friendly film about a ten year-old girl who learns to navigate personal crises via her interactions with an irascible elderly man who teaches her more than the rules of the game. Featuring a cast of familiar faces including F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, Ralph Macchio, Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Dratch, A Little Game is a sweetly well-intentioned effort that displays a personal stamp even while occasionally descending into mawkishness. Opening for an exclusive theatrical engagement at New York's Quad Cinema, it should find its most receptive audiences via home video formats.

Child actress Makenna Ballard makes an impressively naturalistic film debut in the lead role of ten-year-old Max, who lives in NYC's Greenwich Village. Although happily attending the neighborhood's public school, she reluctantly goes along when the opportunity presents itself for her to switch to a exclusive all-girls private school on the Upper East Side, which presents no small obstacle for her financially struggling parents (Macchio, Garofalo).

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Max finds herself struggling to get along with her well-heeled classmates chaperoned by nannies and picked up after school in black SUVs. She particularly attracts the ire of the snooty Isabella (Fatima Ptasek), who seizes the opportunity expose Max's ignorance when she tries to join the chess club. Adding to Max's woes is the death of her beloved Greek grandmother (Dukakis), who later periodically appears to deliver nuggets of wisdom from the great beyond.

Walking home one day through Washington Square Park, she comes upon one of its resident outdoor chess players, the irascible Norman (Abraham), who initially rebuffs her request that she teach him the game. But he's soon won over by her pluckiness, with the ensuing lessons encompassing solo field trips throughout the city featuring magical realism-style encounters with eccentric characters.

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The latter, along with the cutesy narration and the heavy-handed moralizing, constitutes some of the film's more cloying aspects. Director/screenwriter Oppenheimer is not exactly subtle in his approach, with his characters delivering enough homily-infused lessons to fill dozens of fortune cookies. Needless to say, Abraham's crotchety mentor is eventually revealed to have a heart of gold, and a happy ending is produced for all.

Although parents will inevitably find themselves rolling their eyes, younger viewers will probably take it all to heart. Hopefully, they'll eventually graduate to more grown-up, similarly-themed fare as Searching for Bobby Fischer,not to mention Macchio's own The Karate Kid, to which this film owes an obvious debt.

Production: Michael Mailer Films, Black Sand Pictures
Cast: Makenna Ballard, F. Murray Abraham, Ralph Macchio, Janeane Garofalo, Fina Strazza, Olympia Dukakis, Fatima Ptacek, Rachel Drath
Director/screenwriter: Evan Oppenheimer
Producers: Michael Mailer, Edward Schmidt
Executive producers: C.C. Hang, Edward Schmidt
Director of photography: Derek McKane
Production designer: Nazanin Shirazi
Editor: Gregory King
Costume designer: Allison Pearce
Composer: Peter Lurye
Casting: Judy Henderson

Rated PG, 91 min.

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