LittleGamecoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 91 min., Color
Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements
Arc Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C+

There’s always something a little hokey about movies made for children to watch with their parents—kind of like Norman Rockwell paintings that depict life, but also simplify and idealize it. There’s a cheery afterschool special tone to them that resists any comparison to reality as we know it.

Then again, when something in that facile genre gets an infusion of talent and its heart is in the right place, it’s tough to find fault.

That’s how I felt watching A Little Game, which struck me as Karate Kid plays chess instead of learning martial arts. It struck co-star Ralph Macchio the same way, only in this 2014 film from Arc Entertainment he plays the dad rather than the kid in this coming-of-age story. In a bonus feature that mixes interview clips with behind-the-scenes NYC shooting footage, Macchio admits it’s just like the Karate Kid. And playing the Mister Miyagi role brilliantly is F. Murray Abraham as an irascible chess master who spends his time in Washington Park playing pick-up chess games for money. He has a background that we assume is impressive, though it’s never really stated. Like Pat Morita in Karate Kid, he also has a roundabout way of instruction that teaches his pupil as much about life as about the game itself. And as in Karate Kid, his pupil is bullied and feeling lonely and ostracized. Chess becomes a focal point that changes everything.

I know what you’re thinking. Chess??? That slow-moving Rook-to-A-3 strategy game of intellectuals that’s been around since the 6th century? Yep. Part of the fascination comes from the way that chess master Norman Wallach teaches—insisting, in true “wax on, wax off” fashion, that his pupil learn step by step and discover things in the city that will help her to understand the moves on the chess board, and part of the fun comes from Norman’s cranky personality and feisty exchanges with a precocious 10 year old whose parents let her ride the subway by herself.

I wouldn’t say that newcomer Makenna Ballard carries the film, but she co-carries it with Abraham. Without them, there’s really no interest, despite a smarter-than-usual screenplay. Without them, the minor characters stand out as stock types who function in ways we’ve seen at least a thousand times. But Ballard and Abraham’s characters are both so darned likeable and their relationship so deliciously testy that you really don’t need much else.  

LittleGamescreenThere are plenty of issues here for the target audience—children the same age or younger than its star—to identify with. Max (Ballard) moves from a public school to a private one and has to adjust, she deals with friends who don’t have the same degree of freedom as she, she deals with the death of a grandparent (Olympia Dukakis), she wrestles with the fact that both her parents work at very unglamorous jobs, she tries unsuccessfully to fit in at the new school, she endures a temporary separation from her mother (Janeane Garofalo), and, feeling marginalized, she grasps at whatever life preserver is thrown to her. In this case, it’s chess . . . or rather, a chess master who would teach her about life first. In this film, a cool girl plays chess. That might not be realistic, but it ought to be encouraging to brainy girls who enjoy their school’s chess club or scholastic bowl team.

But let’s remember that this is a family film, and the voiceover narration, the afterschool special music, and a certain obviousness at times are all hallmarks of the genre. A Little Game is aimed at girls, since there’s really only one boy in the cast, and as such it’s refreshing to find a film that isn’t all about dance or cheerleading or summer camp. Parents and even children will appreciate the newness of subject matter, even if the structure is 100 percent Karate Kid. It’s a wholesome movie that has one very funny swearword in it (“turd”) that catches you by surprise because it’s been such a wholesome movie.

A Little Game won Best Feature Comedy and Best Child Actor at the International Family Film Festival. If your daughter dreams of getting into acting, she’ll love watching Ballard in action behind the scenes in the one extensive bonus feature. Ballard is just so nice and so real that it’s hard not to like her. And A Little Game might be a drama, but it’s also a bit of an adventure that’s full of humor.