A review requested by Max, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The hook of 2005's Little Manhattan is, to begin with, absolutely baffling, though if you just glance at it really quickly it might seem to make a kind of intuitive sense: hey, what if we did a romantic comedy, but, like, with preteens? I'd say that Little Manhattan ends up being much closer to the best possible outcome of that pitch, but to be honest, I don't even know what that would mean. But anyway, it's definitely not the worst case scenario. We can take comfort in that.

And as baffled as I am by that hook, it's not even the most baffling thing about the film, which is that it stars a pre-pubescent Josh Hutcherson, and he looked exactly the same as he does a decade later. It would be overselling it to call this "terrifying", but it's a little bit creepy at the very least.

In the film, Hutcherson plays Woody Allen. Now, that's a bit inapt, of course; the whole deal is that this is about 11-year-olds, and Allen started life as a middle-aged man eager to become bitterly old as quickly as possible. And "Hutcherson" isn't one of the more Judaical names, exactly. But filter out those things, and Woody Allen is exactly what we have left: an incredibly neurotic male with an inability to fathom the workings of the female brain that borders on the clinically dysfunctional, and a pipeline directly to the audience in the form of wall-to-wall narration. And it all takes place in New York, but the kind of "in New York" that almost exclusively means "the Upper West Side is the center of all meaningful human civilization, but occasionally we'll drift farther south in Manhattan if we absolutely must".

So Hutcherson actually plays Gabe, 10.75 years old, and the child of a marriage that has gone to a deeply foul place, but due to a weird quirk in divorce laws that, if I were an untrusting man, I'd suggest might have been pulled straight from screenwriter Jennifer Flackett's ass, his dad (Bradley Whitford) has to stay in the same apartment as his mom (Cynthia Nixon) until the divorce is final. So that's the a pretty toxic environment for a child entering the age when girls go from being disgusting Others to fascinating, enticing Others (and female screenwriter notwithstanding, Little Manhattan takes a strictly boy-oriented view of preadolescent courtship). And yet, things will happen as they must, and when Gabe manages to guilt his dad into signing off on karate lessons, the sparring partner he's matched with is Rosemary Telesco (Charlie Ray), once a friend of his and now simply part of the amorphous mass of The Girls At School that he and his exclusively male buddies avoid at all costs. Post-class practice is enough to humanise Rosemary, and from there on it's more or less an inevitability that Gabe's innards start to turn cartwheels every time he thinks about or talks to her.

Most of this, I hasten to remind you, is heavily mediated through Gabe's rat-a-tat voiceover walking us through the entirety of his inner monologue, both about the funny feelings he gets and his life in New York more generally. And a few fantasy sequences dart through, to underline the mental chaos going on in his life over the two weeks depicted onscreen. It's entirely fair to say that in its extant state, Little Manhattan depends to an utterly absurd degree on the charm of Gabe himself, and the skill of the actor inhabiting him to handle Flackett's dialogue, which doesn't feel like an adult's failed attempt to put age-appropriate words into a child's mouth, so much as it shrinks an adult down into a child and scales back his vocabulary as necessary. Everything about Little Manhattan unnerves me at least a little bit, but the part that unnerves me most is that the heavily ironic tone Hutcherson is made to bear, and his voluminous self-awareness about being a fifth-grader marching through romantic comedy tropes, makes it feel like the film is meant for an adult audience of at least some genre sophistication (so to with the music cues and limited pop culture references), while the actual, like, existence of it seems to imply that it's for kids, or at least for kids and parents to enjoy as a whole family.

Anyway, whatever its peculiarities, Hutcherson does, in fact do more than able work in the central role; I might find it in me to be snitty enough to suggest that he's legitimately more interesting in this part and the character he creates more complete and alive than his infinitely more visible performance as the charmingly sexless non-boyfriend in the Hunger Games pictures. It's something about finding the exact level of archness and frank sincerity required to make Gabe feel like a real romantic lead, while also justifying the thick veneer of artifice that the structure and tone insist upon (the same mixture makes Hutcherson a perfect candidate to play Bradley Whitford's son, as it happens).

It's a bit silly to say that Little Manhattan only works when it has Hutcherson onscreen, driving things; that would imply that it has any other kind of scene. But it's certainly the case that most of the other elements don't particularly work, or are neutral at best: Ray is constrained by a role that's conceived as a deliberate impenetrable blank, and no child actor could be expected to have the skill set to enliven a character whose inner life takes place entirely off the page. And director Mark Levin cedes far too much of the movie to Hutcherson to help her cheat her way into an interesting performance (Levin also borrows the useful trick in shooting movies around child actors of keeping the frame at their own height, hardly creative or radical by 2005, but still a useful way of dignifying the characters' story instead of turning them into a kind of gimmick). The tone of the script can't decide between a guileless sense of cute, or dry irony, and while Hutcherson's line deliveries invariably favor the latter, the sense that the movie constantly wants to charm our socks off keeps jamming up against how visibly hard it's straining to reach that charm.

Yet the irony works, and until it goes wildly off the rails in the last three minutes to deliver a series of the most shockingly incorrect life lessons ("and because of all this, I learned that love is nothing but a series of grand gestures, and the little moments in between are just details"), it's even sweetly insightful about how mindblowingly horrifying it is to find oneself with unwanted and unfamiliar romantic feelings, if one is a boy, at least. That, plus how unabashedly unlike anything else I've seen it is, no matter how much it leans on genre tropes, makes it hard to deny that it's a somewhat beguiling curiosity. It is not, I think, a good film on top of that. But curiosities don't get a whole lot curiouser.