"Something Special" (selected theaters) is an unassuming little comedy about sexual identity and role confusion. It's about a young girl, who, suddenly and magically, turns into a young boy. As Milly, she was a frustrated wallflower and amateur astronomer. As "Willy," she acquires a set of do-or-die buddies, a persistent female admirer, a gang of implacable bully-foes and a newly rejuvenated father who tries to indoctrinate him/her in the manly virtues of self-defense, swearing and swaggering.

At first, "Something Special" looks like it's going to be an appalling little stinker, one of those tasteless travesties whose manufacture and release makes you wonder at the sanity of the movie industry. Then, unexpectedly, you begin to get caught up in the rhythms, characters and storytelling.

The movie doesn't really function well as a comedy. None of it is particularly funny and it's least funny when the jokes get mildly scatological. But it has an amiable quality. Both the writing (by Carla Rueben and Walter Carbone, from a story by Alan Friedman) and the directing (by Paul Schneider) have more sensitivity than you would have guessed. Schneider and the writers seem to understand and sympathize with the doubts, fears and absurdities of pubescent youngsters, and the movie sometimes gets inside the heads of its young characters and makes their problems real--even though the adults, in an unfortunate norm for this kind of story, remain extravagant caricatures.

The lead actress, Pamela Segall, performs quite well the same virtuoso stunt Dustin Hoffman pulled off in "Tootsie." (She even looks a bit like Hoffman.) Segall believably renders both Milly and Willy--makes you accept the unlikely proposition that she can inhabit the body of either sex. Equally sensitive is her "leading man," wheelchair-bound Alfie (Eric Gurry). Gurry avoids "handicapped" stereotypes and easily navigates the tricky waters of sexual confusion Willy/Milly awakens in him.

You don't want to praise a movie like this too much. There's no sense in calling it an undiscovered gem--it isn't--or arousing all kinds of expectations it can't and won't fulfill. It's simply a small film that works fairly well on its own modest level--though it's certainly more entertaining than such non-gems as "Burglar" and "Mannequin." For a movie that was released without a press screening, an independent production that isn't an "art film," and that obviously isn't expected to generate much of an audience, it's surprisingly good. The youthful cast plays with assurance. The story--though it's predictable, has dull spots and doesn't go very far--is appealing. And director Schneider has a quiet, unobtrusive yarn-spinning skill that suggests he deserves other chances. Come to think of it, they all do.

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