Small Wonders (Allan Miller)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

I'm quite surprised to find myself writing a review of this film, to be honest. I saw it over six months ago, back when it was called Fiddlefest, in a series of Oscar-nominated films at the Museum of Modern Art. It ended up losing the award to Anne Frank Remembered, predictably, and I never for a moment expected it to get a theatrical release...especially not courtesy of Miramax, a company that isn't exactly well-known for its catalog of educational documentaries. Yet here it is, playing at a theater near me (at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, to be precise -- cute choice, as the film's climax takes place around the corner at the Hall proper), while the far superior Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, a fellow nominee, languishes without a distributor. Could it possibly have anything to do with the fact that Troublesome Creek is depressing and pessimistic (if only implicitly), while Small Wonders, as it's now known, is uplifting and hopeful? Nah. There's nothing wrong with uplifting and hopeful, of course, but there's nothing terribly exciting about Small Wonders, either -- at least, not as a film. Here's what it consists of: Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras is a terrific violin teacher who works with public schoolchildren in East Harlem, choosing a select number (by lottery -- her program is very popular) each year for instruction. The kids aren't budding virtuosos, just average tots eager to learn a skill, and Guaspari-Tzavaras is a demanding taskmaster, preaching the value of hard work, dedication, and persistence. A few youngsters drop out in frustration, but most of them struggle onward despite frustrations and setbacks, and even the least promising pupils finally get the hang of the instrument. The moral: talent is fine, but effort is more important. It's The Little Underprivileged Kid Who Could. Laudable, to be sure, and it might have made for a first-rate short documentary, but there are only so many shots of little kids playing the violin badly (or, eventually, competently) that a person can take; and the film, which is a mere 80 minutes long, wears out its welcome long before the climactic finale at Carnegie Hall, in which the best students get to play onstage with pros like Itzhak Perlman (hey, wait a minute...I thought we weren't singling the talented children out...what's this "best" stuff?...). Worthy, but interminable.