The first thing one notices about "A New York Heartbeat," directed by Tjardus Greidanus from his own script and story, is that it is populated by actors who aren't embarrassed about acting.
As the viewer slips into the film's easygoing narrative, a rare thing happens -- an actual story unfurls before our eyes without benefit of CGI, gratuitous violence, zombies, robots or pouting actors in desperate need of an attitude adjustment.
The film opens at night on a rundown street in 1959 Brooklyn. We meet Spider (Escher Holloway), the 17-year-old leader of a quintet of corner boys bursting at the seams for the kind of experience that comes only from petty crime and pointless risks.
Somehow, the boys resist the urge to break into the Jets' anthem from "West Side Story," but they exhibit the same exuberant verbal patter that was common in the movies and musicals of that day.
3 1/2 stars = Very good
Escher Holloway, Rachel Brosnahan, Eric Roberts, Jack Donner.
No MPAA rating but contains adult themes, profanity and violence.
When one of Spider's crew hatches a plot to steal a gun they can use to protect themselves from a rival street gang, there isn't a lot of ruminating about the pros and cons. Spider earns his nickname by scaling the outside of a building to an upper floor to let his less dexterous comrades into the apartment.
The boys don't find the gun initially, but they do find a card table full of money -- roughly $10,000. They suspect that they have broken into an apartment belonging to the neighborhood syndicate. Instead of leaving immediately, the boys stuff a suitcase with as much of the ill-gotten cash as they can.
They aren't fast enough. Their path to freedom is blocked by mob boss Casket Mike (Eric Roberts) and his underlings making their way up the stairwell to what is supposed to be an empty apartment. Cornered, the boys bar the apartment door from the inside and position a ladder horizontally across the alley from the apartment's balcony to the roof next door.
In a tension-filled sequence, the boys attempt to make their way to safety with the cash as the mobsters finally break down the apartment door. Soon, guns are blazing, a ladder collapses and Spider and his friends begin a journey that won't end well for most of them.
Spider is separated from his comrades, but at least he has the money. He is moments from freedom when he spots a lone woman (Rachel Brosnahan) being stalked by a trio of street punks in the alley where he has taken refuge. After stashing the cash, Spider intervenes in the attempted rape, which makes it possible for the woman to escape, thereby earning him the beating of his life.
Left for dead in the alley, Spider is pulled to safety by Tamara, the woman he rescued. She's an odd duck, a beautiful young recluse who lives in what is believed to be an abandoned hotel with her uncle, former gangster Big Didi (Jack Donner), whom everyone in the neighborhood believes to be dead. Spider spends weeks convalescing in Tamara's apartment, his location unknown to his gang or the crooks pursuing him. Even Big Didi, now old and wheelchair bound, is unaware that his niece is harboring a fugitive.
The fun really begins when all the threads of Spider's world, the gangsters out for revenge, his street life, his dysfunctional family life and Big Didi's past all converge in the film's satisfying but messy last act. There are several major gaps in logic, but they never overcome the film's emotional truthfulness.
One of the film's triumphs is the delicacy with which the relationship between Tamara and Spider is handled. Though initially wary of each other despite each having rescued the other, they get to know each other through long conversations during Spider's rehab in the apartment.
The two young actors at the heart of this romance set half a century ago have genuine on-screen chemistry that puts every other pairing on screen this year to shame. The fact that their relationship has more resonance and realism than the one between Superman and Lois Lane in "Man of Steel" at a fraction of the cost, is saying a lot about films today.
In a movie season thick with big budget critical disasters and box office disappointments, there's something almost retro about "A New York Heartbeat's" reliance on such old-fashioned cinematic virtues as a good story, sympathetic characters and a willingness to raise the emotional stakes in its bid to keep things interesting.
For local audiences, it is also a pleasure to see Pittsburgh, where this movie was filmed in 2010, doubling as a gritty New York neighborhood during the time Ike was president. There are shots of Trinity Cathedral at night and the network of alleys behind old commercial buildings Downtown that convince you that Pittsburgh can play any town from Gotham to Timbuktu if the right director is at the helm.
There's only one time when I was pulled out of the film, and that was during a shot of the New York skyline from a Brooklyn rooftop that included both the Empire State Building and the distinctive triangular shape of the Highmark Building. It was either a terrible accident, a cheesy homage or an inside joke.
Opens today at the Regent Square Theater. Tonight, director Greidanus and Laura Davis, his wife and producer of the film, will answer questions following the 8 p.m. screening at the theater. Ms. Davis is a Squirrel Hill native and undoubtedly the reason that "A New York Heartbeat" was filmed here.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.