'Vitus'

Child prodigy movies either make you fear your own progeny (for he may be the antichrist) or hope that he doesn't turn out to be a tortured little genius. "Vitus," a charming Swiss drama about a young boy with an off-the-charts intellect, falls comfortably into the latter category.

Smart is one thing, but little Vitus has rare gifts. In kindergarten, he reads the encyclopedia while the other children play. At the piano, he tickles the ivories with such dexterity his parents' friends speak of Mozart and suggest he enter an academy.

Vitus' British mother, Helen (Julika Jenkins), eagerly fires his piano teacher and places her son where his talents can bloom. By the time he is 12, however, Vitus begins to rebel a bit, yearning to be more like other kids.

To this point, the film bears a passing resemblance to Steven Zaillian's "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Both films feature young boys with abilities that far outstrip their parents' expectations, and in their eagerness to see their sons fulfill their potential, the parents push a little too hard, forgetting along the way that they are still only children.

"Bobby Fischer" remains largely realistic as Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna) learns from his young son, Josh (Max Pomeranc), by watching him at the chessboard and seeing the little boy fighting to remain one. "Vitus" writer-director Fredi M. Murer (Peter Luisi and Lukas B. Suter are also credited with the script) takes his movie in another direction, making the parents a little more clueless and the young boy (real-life piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu) a very active player in asserting himself in what evolves into a more playful thinking-child's adventure story.

Vitus' father, Leo (Urs Jucker), is an ambitious and fast-rising designer at a firm that makes hearing aids. His success keeps him increasingly busy, allowing Vitus to grow close to his crinkly eyed grandfather (the always wonderful Bruno Ganz), a cabinetmaker who keeps Vitus well-grounded even as he harbors his own dreams of flying a plane.

Confiding in his grandfather allows Vitus to clearly see what needs to be done to keep his life normal, and he makes a bold and surprising move that has far-reaching consequences.

Murer is a skillful director and has crafted a crowd-pleasing story that will have particular appeal to mature 'tweeners.

There's a magic to the transformations young Vitus makes, and the cast keeps it consistently involving. It's a foreign film accessible to even those with an aversion to subtitles, and its narrative construction is so classic Hollywood and well developed that an English-language remake would require little more than a translation.

It's admittedly cynical and materialistic when it comes to some of the things Vitus uses his brilliance for, but its warmth and allure takes your mind off its baser instincts. So few films successfully capture the wonders of childhood or the challenges faced by families with gifted children.

"Vitus" does that and combines complex relationships with a winning style of storytelling.

kevin.crust@latimes.com

"Vitus." In Swiss-German with English subtitles. MPAA rating: PG for mild thematic elements and language. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. In selected theaters.

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