An entertaining, penetrating look at adolescence

The movies rarely do right by children. Hollywood tends to patronize, exploit , or just ignore child characters, and even pictures with good intentions may fall into hackneyed views that haven't been questioned for decades.

''Old Enough'' is a pleasant exception to the rule. An independent production , it's the work of two new talents - Marisa and Dina Silver - who clearly remember what their younger days were like, and have the knack for getting their impressions on-screen. Just about every scene has the ring of authenticity, and even when the plot seems a touch contrived, the filmmakers never force things into predictable patterns. The result is a warm and friendly comedy with lots of lore and even a little wisdom about the tough years of early adolescence.

The setting is a New York neighborhood where upscale newcomers are slowly displacing the working-class tenants. Lonnie, 12 years old, lives in a townhouse that looks like it's scrubbed and sterilized every morning. Karen, 14, is jammed with her family into a walkup flat.

The girls meet during a long, hot summer when Karen's lonely and Lonnie's bored with day camp. Each finds the other tantalizing - opposites often attract, and these kids are as opposite as you can get, in everything from economics to cosmetics. Their ages are an interesting match, too. Looking at Lonnie, the older Karen can see the childhood she's just barely left; meanwhile Lonnie searches Karen's face, form, and behavior for clues to the teenage adventure she's about to begin.

The movie cares more about details than drama, which is to the good, though the details are presented from a determinedly middle-class viewpoint that finds the working-class girl much more exotic than her privileged pal. Be that as it may, the strongest moments take place when writer-director Marisa Silver quietly observes her characters and the fine young actresses who play them.

The plot revs up from time to time, as when Karen's brother gets involved with a siren in an upstairs apartment, but such episodes seem tangential to the movie's real business, which is to crawl inside the hearts and minds of two energetic youngsters coming face to face with the world and themselves for the first time. When it focuses crisply on that fascinating task, ''Old Enough'' is a fascinating film.

It's also a film with an unusual genesis. It was first developed in 1982 at the Sundance Institute for Independent Filmmakers, a brainchild of Robert Redford, who founded it in 1980 to support nonstudio moviemaking. The producer, Dina Silver, then raised money from Sundance and other independent investors.

The picture was shot on location in New York during the summer of 1983 with a professional crew, including - most important - cinematographer Michael Ballhaus , who has enhanced the work of such major directors as Margarethe von Trotta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Both stars, Sarah Boyd as Lonnie and Rainbow Harvest as Karen, are New Yorkers with first-hand knowledge of the turf ''Old Enough'' covers. It's an independent production all the way, and a most polished example of the breed.

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