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Popcorn Love: Max Pomeranc and Michael Nirenberg in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 19, 2007

“Trick or treat.”

There aren’t too many movies you could classify as “Thinking man’s kids’ sports movies”. The genre wallows in cliche like only so many other genres dare to do–the unaviodable mixture of the obligatory predictable dramatic structure of the sports movie with the obligatory overbearing sentimentality of the kids movie means that most of the best movies in the field are the ones you can see coming the furthest away. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure there are only two that exist: Little Big League and Searching for Bobby Fischer.

And even Little Big League only sort of qualifies. It’s ceratinly far more mature than its more mainstream counterpart, Rookie of the Year–the combination of the kid owning the team instead of merely playing for it (which somehow seems more realistic), the lead performance being stronger (Luke Edwards might not have gone on to much, but he also never did American Pie 3), the real-life athlete cameos being better (fuck you, Ken Griffey Jr.) and of course, the end being more thought-provoking. But it’s still a movie made mostly with kids in mind, and distinctly feels like a movie made from a kid perspective.

It’s blowing my mind a little bit just how good Searching for Bobby Fischer is. It’s that most impossible thing, a kids sports movie for adults. Yet it’s not nearly as boring or as inaccessible as that implies–I loved the movie when I was seven, probably no less (or more) than I do now. It’s a movie made from an adult perspective, but one that still feels alive with the excitement and terror of youth. It’s a movie that tells a story with humanity, empathy, and insight, and yet it’s also cliched and totally predictable.

And it’s a movie where the most mature performance comes from an eight-year-old. Max Pomeranc, who played what most people who haven’t seen the movie probably assume is the title character (talk about a title that gives its audience too much credit–how many people wandered into this movie expecting a biopic of the controversial ex-legend?), did have the leg up of being a chess player in real life. But that doesn’t explain the truly stunning emotional intelligence Pomeranc displays as the prodigious protagonsit Josh Waitzkin, whether he’s playing chess or not.

I really don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that this is the best pre-teen acting performance I’ve ever seen. Pomeranc plays the role with such subtlety, and yet with so much significance in every moment, to the point where it’s barely possible to believe he’s even acting at all. Haley Joel Osment is post-Scarface Pacino compared to Pomeranc, Jodie Foster is Ethel Merman. He’s brilliant, yes, both intellectually and intuitively, but he’s also clearly still a kid, wanting to play second base for the Yankees when he grows up, wanting other kids to like him, and wanting his parents’ love more than anything.
That’s hardly to discredit the movie’s adult cast, either. David Paymer as the worried parent of a friend, Laurence Fishburne as Josh’s chess-hustler mentor, and Ben Kingsley as his acadmeic mentor all bring their A games to roles that could’ve been cartoons. And of course, Joan Allen and Joe Mantegna give performances as Josh’s parents that the Academy’s name is truly mud for spurning–both clearly love their son beyond measure, but their differences in expressing it can be utterly heartbreaking.

Yet, even among such distinguished company, Pomeranc still stands tall. Watch the scene in which Mantegna interrupts him doing his math homework to insist that it’s OK with him if he wants to stop playing chess or if he doesn’t win, even confiscating his pencil to make sure he’s paying attention. See Pomeranc totally own the situation as he calmly insists that indeed, he does have to win, while he unemotionally but highly purposefully reaches back for his pencil. It’s the movie’s most emotionally and practically ambiguous scene, but one of the most memorable, and that’s almost entirely due to Pomeranc.

Really, the only other actor in the movie that can hold his own with Pomeranc is Michael Nirenberg, playing Waitzkin’s eventual rival, Jonathan Poe. To say Nirenberg’s performance (and Poe’s character) lacks the shading of Pomeranc/Waitzkin is sort of like saying that First Daughter lacks the political commentary of Medium Cool. Poe is nothing less than the Ivan Drago of kiddie chess–the cold, mechanical training, the narcissistically arrogant demeanor, the lifeless, contemptuous, thousand-yard stare. Along with his equally evil mentor, played by Robert Stephens (who, wouldn’t you knot it, also happens to be an old rival of the Kingsley character’s?), Poe provides the one-dimensional cartoonishness necessary to keep this movie from becoming a depressing think piece about the nature of competition destroying the innocence of youth. And, is in his own way, he’s almost as strong as Pomeranc–for the longest time, I had an inexplicable aversion to plain, white, collared short-sleeved shirts, and I didn’t realize until watching it tonight that Poe’s reliance on them in this movie might very well have been the reason.

Adding even further resonance to these performances is the fact that, in an unfortunately appropriate twist, both actors ended up pulling a Fischer themselves after the movie. Pomeranc appared in only one more big-screen movie, a forgotten Samuel L. Jackson and Matthe Modine drama with the sadly ironic title of Fluke, before losing interest in acting altogether (he graduated from McGill in 2006, where he played baseball). And Michael Nirenberg was never heard from again–not in the acting world, anyway, where Searching for Bobby Fischer is still his only listed acting credit on IMDB to date. On the plus side, however, is the fact that no post-adolescent rap sheets hound these actors’ signature roles, and that no appearances in reductive VH1 specials–either commentating or being commented upon–cheapen their memories.

My one main grievance with the movie, though? Kiddie chess tournaments = not nearly that exciting. No room full of overexcited, occasionally disoebdient parents, no sections of time where two players make a combined 30 moves in what looks like 45 seconds, and definitely no grand stage on which the top two players play the finals–in fact, no finals at all, if I recall. But I guess most pee-wee football teams don’t play in professional stadiums, most regional kids’ hockey champs don’t automatically go on to take on the entire world, and most pre-teen baseball fanatics don’t inherit Major League teams from their dying Grandfathers. We’ll let it slide.

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10 Responses to “Popcorn Love: Max Pomeranc and Michael Nirenberg in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)”

  1. […] Michael Nirenberg in Searching for … Andrew Unterberger added an interesting post today on Popcorn Love: Max Pomeranc and Michael Nirenberg in Searching for …Here’s a small readingI really don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that thisis the best pre-teen acting performance I’ve ever seen–Pomeranc plays the role with such subtlety, and yet with so much significance in every moment, to the point where … […]

  2. Chris Argento said

    I think Pomeranc is good in this movie, really good actually. But my vote for best performance by a pre-teen goes to Rick(y?) Schroeder for “The Champ”. I had heard of the movie but like most movies made before 1982 that aren’t spoken of reverently by basically everyone (Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc.) I never made a point to sit down and watch it. I caught it on cable a few months ago and I couldn’t believe that “Silver Spoons” Schroeder was the same kid. He’s awesome in this movie.

  3. Andy Walz said

    The biggest kid star out of this movie turned out to be the kid who played Morgan who got the starring role in the Indian in the Cupboard…before promptly disappearing.

  4. […] Not the first time (or the last time, in all likelihood) that I’ll write about Jonathan, one of the best […]

  5. Brad Radford said

    I once read (or think I did) that Michael Nirenberg died of cancer at age 20. Is it true? Can’t find a thing about it.

  6. BobbiFischer said

    Max Pomeranc and Michael Nirenberg actually went to high school together! I was in Michael’s year (2001) at the Bronx High School of Science, and Max was a year behind us. I’m Facebook friends with Mike, so I can tell you he’s very much alive!

    • Paco said

      Why lie about something so random?

      Michael Nirenberg (I) (1978–1996)
      Actor
      Contribute to IMDb. Add a bio, trivia, and more.
      Update information for Michael Nirenberg »
      Born: February 17, 1978
      Died: (cancer) December 4, 1996 (age 18)
      Share this page:

      Filmography
      Hide HideActor (2 titles)
      1996 Eclipse (short)
      The Boy

      1993 Searching for Bobby Fischer
      Jonathan Poe

      • Paco said

        Nevermind after further research, IMDB is in error. Michael Nirenberg is indeed alive and well. Apologies to original poster. So odd they haven’t taken down the misinformation at IMDB. Loved his performance in SFBF.

  7. VIC TRAVEL said

    VIC TRAVEL…

    […]Popcorn Love: Max Pomeranc and Michael Nirenberg in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) « Intensities in Ten Suburbs[…]…

  8. Bob said

    Can anyone provide a picture of what Michael Nirenberg looks like today? My family believes he is my son’s doppelgänger 20 years later. Any help would be greatly appreciated and I would love nothing better than to demonstrate to my family (specifically inlaws) that I am awesome.

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