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'Small Time' Is a Little Movie With a Big Heart

A divorced dad helps his boy become a man in this realistic coming-of-age tale

Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Stars: Xander Berkeley, Devon Bostick, Christopher Meloni, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Norris

Director: Joel Surnow

Small Time plays well on the big screen. The directing debut of veteran TV writer Joel Surnow (co-creator of Fox's long-running series 24), the film is loosely based on Surnow's own experiences as a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, where his father sold carpeting and drapes door to door.

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Christopher Meloni, Samll Time, Movies for Grownups

Everett Collection

"Small Time" stars Christopher Meloni as a divorced dad and a used-car salesman in the San Fernando Valley in the '70s.

Al Klein, the father character in Small Time, is brilliantly cast in Christopher Meloni, known for his long-standing roles on the small screen's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Oz and the current sitcom Surviving Jack.

As we watch Al's son, Freddy, come of age (he's played by a gangly, goofy Devon Bostick, from Diary of a Wimpy Kid), we simultaneously witness Klein growing throughout Meloni's performance. And that's the beauty of this movie: It shows us why parenting is a two-way street — an enterprise that, in the best of circumstances, can be an opportunity for personal development on all sides.

Klein and his sidekick, Ash Martini (Dean Norris of Breaking Bad and Little Miss Sunshine), are used-car salesmen who, operating from a colorful lot in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, could sell ice to Eskimos, as the saying goes. A modest but steady business, Diamond Motors has always met Klein's needs just fine. But back when Freddy was a toddler, it didn't even begin to satisfy Al's ambitious wife, Barbara (finely portrayed by Bridget Moynahan of Blue Bloods). So Barbara left her car-salesman hubby for her wildly successful venture capitalist of a boss, Chick. (As played by Xander Berkeley, also of 24, Chick overflows with suitably highbrow arrogance.)

Imagine the upwardly mobile Barbara's chagrin when Freddy follows his high school graduation with the announcement that he's decided not to enroll at California Polytechnic after all; instead he plans to move in with his dad and become a permanent part of the Diamond Motors sales team.

The ensuing comedy rolls along at a brisk and often unpredictable pace, thankfully steering clear of heavy-handed lessons about greed vs. honesty or the morality of opportunism. And though the father-son bonding we witness is touching — and sure feels good — Small Time is never overly sentimental. In a film whose opening seems to presage mawkishness — in a voiceover, Freddy describes it as the story of the summer that "changed my life" — Surnow manages to keep the drama and the histrionics subdued.

Which is precisely how, in the real world, people sometimes leave the biggest mark on those they care the deepest about.

Meg Grant is West Coast Editor of AARP The Magazine.