‘Bobby Fisher’ movie both tough, warm

By Patricia Bobby

“Searching for Bobby Fischer‘’ is one of those rare, special movies that speaks to a myriad of tough issues in a tale that’s intrinsically warm and entertaining.

What makes this film so refreshing is that it’s not afraid to have heart and, at the same time, it doesn’t assault the viewer with its message. There’s no cloying sentimentality, just the lessons learned from the struggles of an exceptionally gifted 7-year-old boy, Josh Waitzkin.

Based on the true story of Josh’s discovery of his prodigious talent as a chess player, the film loosely uses as its backdrop the mysterious disappearance of chess legend Bobby Fischer. The similarity between Josh’s ascension as a prodigy and Fischer’s are remarkable. Among other things, both lived in New York and successfully played speed chess at a very young age in Washington Square Park.

Josh (Max Pomeranc, making his acting debut) has an eerie command of the game and can reason through numerous sequential moves in his head without so much as touching a piece. When he plays the park veterans, some of whom finance their vices with their chess earnings, Josh can barely reach the board; nonetheless, he beats the men.

This brings whispers that Josh might be the next Bobby Fischer.

It’s those stirrings that set the boy on a course of baldfaced competition, engineered in large part by his father, Fred (Joe Mantegna), his teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley) and his park coach, Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne).

At first, Josh is an eager participant. What child wouldn’t want his father doting on him, constantly telling him that he’s the best? And Pandolfini weaves a mystical spell over the chess board, which he emphatically refers to as an art, not a game.

But as Josh climbs the tournament ranks, it’s no longer clear who he is winning for—himself, his father or his teacher. And his odyssey becomes tainted with the downside of competition—the contempt for other players and the fear of faltering. And somewhere amid this is a kid who wants to play Clue and eat pizza.

‘‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’‘ spins its gold as it pits parents’ sometimes impossible expectations of their children against the children’s best interests.

This gentle, endearing story also would not ring as true if it weren’t for Max Pomeranc, who himself is a ranked chess player. With his sloe-eyed stare, he seems to comprehend more than a boy’s share of the complexities and sadness around him.

Another boy making his screen debut is Michael Nirenberg, who plays Josh’s rival, Jonathan Poe. Michael also does a remarkable job at bringing a whole range of delicate emotions into play as a rather melancholy boy determined to win.

And Mantegna is marvelous as the anguished and driven father who can telegraph more with his pursed lips than many actors can with their entire bodies. Joan Allen plays Josh’s mother, Bonnie Waitzkin, who often is at odds with her husband’s ambitions for their son.

Steven Zaillian wrote the script and makes his directorial debut with ‘‘Searching for Bobby Fischer.’‘ He also wrote the screenplays for ‘‘Awakenings,’‘ ‘‘Jack the Bear,’‘ and ‘‘The Falcon and the Snowman.’‘

The Paramount Pictures release was produced by Scott Rudin and William Horberg and is rated PG.

‘‘The Man Without a Face’

What a daredevil Mel Gibson is. While most of his fellow stars seem content to repeat their customary characters in proven formulas, Gibson insists on working without a net.

He breathed new life into the buddy-cop movie with his off-the-wall Detective Riggs in the ‘‘Lethal Weapon’‘ movies. He invited ridicule by agreeing to play Hamlet, then delivered a creditable performance. Now he appears with half his handsome face horribly scarred in ‘‘The Man Without a Face,’‘ which he also directed.

The result is a first-class piece of work, as actor and director. He has converted a sentimental, fairly predictable tale into absorbing drama. His outstanding achievement comes with the performance of 13-year-old Nick Stahl. The Dallas native is rarely off the screen, and all the events are reflected in his sensitive face. Amazingly, this is his first movie.