'Little Fugitive': A long-ago New York opens up to brothers ★★★★

'Little Fugitive'

'Little Fugitive' (February 21, 2013)

The everyday slings, arrows and casual glories of childhood typically turn to mush, or to resistible pathos, in the movies. Now and then, though, you find a "Little Fugitive."

Where has this one been all my life? Only now, on occasion of the 1953 gem's return for a five-day run in a restored print at the Siskel Film Center, have I made its acquaintance. It's about time. Drawing from the work of the Italian neorealists, exerting a strong influence on both French and American filmmakers to come, ranging from Francois Truffaut to John Cassevetes, this tale of two Brooklyn preteen brothers is a delicate yet tough-minded seriocomic odyssey of the boys (their mother's away visiting a sick relative, and their father has died sometime ago) in separate orbits as they try to find each other at the universe known as Coney Island.

Few pictures of the era can compare with "Little Fugitive," on two levels. For one, it's a great slice of New York life and locales. Directors Richard Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin photographed their homemade venture largely with concealed cameras and nonprofessional actors. Reveling in the Brooklyn neighborhoods, the street baseball, the laundry hanging over the alleys, the throngs at the seaside boardwalk, the movie serves as a glorious time capsule, bottling a time when an urban childhood meant blessedly (and sometimes scarily) unsupervised activity, a sense of freedom as wild as the Wild West that inflames the gunslinger imagination of 7-year-old Joey, played by Richie Andrusco.

Older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster) is supposed to be watching Joey, but a cruel prank sends Joey fleeing on his own, thinking he's killed Lennie with a pop gun. "Little Fugitive" takes the ins and outs of a fractious sibling relationship seriously, but the film doesn't force or push anything. As Joey's panic turns to easygoing enjoyment of the Coney amusements, we see him trade deposit bottles for money for pony rides, midway games and cotton candy. For a kid who's spent a lot of hours in front of a black-and-white TV set watching Westerns ("Last night, on television they made blood come out of a guy's ear!" says one of Lennie's friends), what happens outside the apartment in "Little Fugitive" constitutes equal parts fear and delight.

It's a delicious slice of early '50s Americana, as well as a wise evocation of childhood in all its darkness and light. Plus, for trivia buffs, Will Lee, the character actor who played kindly Mr. Hooper on "Sesame Street," turns up as a Coney photographer who cajoles Joey into a smile as he begins his adventure.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Little Fugitive' -- 4 stars
No MPAA rating.
Running time:
1:20
Plays: Sunday-Thursday at the Siskel Film Center

CHICAGO

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