There tend to be two poles when it comes to making semi-autobiographical movies about one's childhood, and both are designed to make the viewer cry. There's the "Those were the good old days" approach (see My Dog Skip or Stand by Me), usually depicting the time in a young boy's (or, more rarely, girl's) life when some great lesson was learned -- often a token tragedy amid a sea of perfection -- and now everyone that was around back then is dead, and isn't that sad. Approach number two is the "My life sucked, and now you're going to see exactly how" routine, inevitably involving abusive parents, war or extreme poverty (Angela's Ashes, This Boy's Life). In either case, an overbearing soundtrack is present to cue us to the tragedy of innocence slipping away. Rare is the nostalgia film that can strike a balance between the good and the bad, without milking the tear ducts (A Christmas Story is the all-time champion in that department), but Jason Alexander (yes, George Costanza) has done it with Just Looking, a tale of a young teen seeking not to get laid (he knows he's too young), but rather to watch someone else do so.
Loosely based on first-time screenwriter Marshall Karp's childhood experiences, Just Looking opens with a voice-over anecdote from our 14-year-old protagonist, Lenny (Ryan Merriman), as he relates a story about being given money from his mother to donate to charity, doing as asked, then being given cookies by a man dressed as Santa Claus, only to be punished by Mom, who assumes that he spent the money on cookies. The moral of the tale? "Just because a kid's story sounds hard to believe doesn't mean it never happened." Ah. Clever way for the film to preemptively defuse any criticisms of its realism.
With that out of the way, we open on a long tracking shot of the Bronx in 1955, as Lenny continues his narration, letting us know his father is dead, and his mother (Patti Lupone) married a rather portly and obnoxious butcher (Richard V. Licata), whose very profession is driving Lenny toward vegetarianism. But there are more pressing things on Lenny's mind than family squabbles. Like any other boy his age, he has become obsessed with sex, even though he isn't even entirely sure what it involves. This being the '50s, the movie isn't going to be about Lenny getting any. But he does set a goal that by the end of the summer, he will somehow have witnessed the act.
Unlike most kids, Lenny is even willing to watch his mother and stepdad in the act to satiate his curiosity (he'd prefer to watch Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, he tells us, but will take what he can get), but his first attempt at voyeurism fails, and when his stepdad gets an inkling of Lenny's intentions, he has him sent off to stay with his Aunt Norma (Ilana Levine) and her testosterone-fueled Italian husband, Phil (Steven Bochco regular Peter Onorati), out in "the country," which is to say Queens, considered rural by virtue of the fact that people there have backyards. Lenny assumes that his Italian uncle will undoubtedly be having intercourse galore, but, alas, with Aunt Norma eight months pregnant, there's no action under that roof.
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Fortunately, other openings present themselves. Lenny swiftly befriends some local kids who have a Sex Club, essentially an intergender forum to talk about it ("Are you sure this isn't just like a local thing?" asks Lenny when he's first told about menstruation), captained by a demure Catholic girl named Alice who talks the talk but doubts her ability to ever carry it through because "Catholic girls don't do it." Meanwhile, a beautiful nurse named Hedy (Gretchen Mol), who also happens to be a former underwear model, provides perfect fantasy fodder. Working as a grocery delivery boy, Lenny earns her trust and gains knowledge of her spare key location. Now all he has to do is sneak in when her boyfriend comes over. Of course, that's easier said than done.
The best thing about Just Looking is that it doesn't sugar-coat its story: The kids' mouths are appropriately foul behind their parents' backs, some brief nudity is glimpsed, and the score rises into crying mode only once, by which time we're so far into the scene that we're already involved. The adults are also more complex than usual, especially given that they manage to be presented throughout from a kid's point of view while retaining both character flaws and good intentions. There's an unfortunate third-act crisis that factors in the familiar "freak" thunderstorm, and heaps on mini-crisis after mini-crisis in an unbelievable fashion -- aided and abetted by some cheesy and unnecessary cartoon lightning bolts -- but hey, maybe it actually happened to the writer. And director Alexander should be commended for not casting himself into the movie. In a pinch, he might have been able to play a less convincing version of the stepfather, but the only trace of him is as a radio voice in one brief scene.
It's also highly commendable that, despite many obvious references to race and ethnicity (Ryan and family are Jewish, his best friend is Greek, and his uncle Italian), the culture clashes are played up without cheapening any of the characters. Yes, there are countless references to lusty Italians, but they ultimately ring out as a hollow defense for poor behavior. And yes, Ryan's mom is a protective Jewish mother, so much so that he's driven to eat ham sandwiches in protest, but she manages to miss a lot of the mischief he gets into. In neither case is the ethnicity the key trait that defines a character, unlike in the recent and more hollow exercise in nostalgia that was Two Family House. Alexander, who has handled lower-profile directing duties before, shows that he could make a career of it if his available roles ever dry up, and screenwriter Karp shows a promising future. The acting is solid on all counts, especially from the kids, and even Gretchen Mol, who so often serves as window dressing, puts in a real performance (like Charlize Theron, she has a look that may be forever typecast in period roles). A legitimate charmer mostly as a result of its focus on story and character rather than excessive faux charm, Just Looking definitely deserves more than just a look.