Based on a true story written by the father depicted in the film, Searching for Bobby Fischer focuses on Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), a relatively normal 7-year-old who possesses a stunning aptitude for chess. Max starts honing that talent, playing a sped-up form of the game known as ‘blitz’ with street hustlers. Soon after, his father, Fred (Joe Mantegna), takes him to a chess coach (Ben Kingsley) who says that Josh could well be the second coming of Bobby Fischer, the legendary former chess champ.
Searching is at its best when exploring the tension between wanting to develop a child’s abilities and allowing him to remain a child. Unfortunately, as scripter, debuting director Steven Zaillian (who wrote Awakenings) also feels compelled to throw in Karate Kid-type flourishes, a rather stale genre that doesn’t lend itself all that well to chess. The narrative is ruthlessly edited, jumping around in a manner that skips needed exposition and abandons characters.
Zaillian does a better job with his actors. Mantegna adds to his portfolio with a fine, subdued performance as the suddenly driven father, while Joan Allen is strong as the protective mom. Newcomer Pomeranc is wonderfully real and wide-eyed as Josh, with a raspy voice and slight lisp recalling Linus from the Peanuts cartoons.
1993: Nomination: Best Cinematography