Holden Caulfield of ”The Catcher in the Rye,” Benjamin Braddock of ”The Graduate,” and Max Fischer of ”Rushmore” contributed to the gene pool that spawned Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), the hypersophisticated 15-year-old prep-school hero of the ingratiating romantic coming-of-age comedy Tadpole. Oscar — a child of Manhattan privilege who speaks fluent French, quotes Voltaire, and thinks the beauty of a woman’s character shows in her hands — returns home for Thanksgiving as lovesick as a palely loitering knight. As he confesses to a friend and classmate (”The Sopranos”’ Robert Iler), the object of Oscar’s affection is his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver), an elegant and sensitive medical researcher married to Oscar’s somewhat doltish university professor father (John Ritter, born to play a bearded, liberal dad).
Soon after, the mopey young swain must also confess that the accidental beneficiary of his longing is Eve’s swinging single best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a chiropractor with soothing hands in public and seductive ones in private who appreciates ardor even in a high school boy.
The comedy is easy — it’s the opposite of astonishing. But the surprise of this short and inexpensively made indie (originally shot on digital video) is its authority and good cheer, the very accessibility that won it the 2002 Sundance Directing Award and a high-priced pickup from Miramax. Neuwirth nails the role of a mischief-prone, 40-year-old New York single woman with her usual precise comic aim: In one fine, wicked scene, Diane juggles the departure of a mortified, morning-after Oscar and the arrival of her dull, middle-aged boyfriend (Adam LeFevre); in another she quietly torments Oscar at a restaurant dinner. Weaver, meanwhile, brings honest, unguarded softness to the often underappreciated character of a fortysomething New York second wife and kind stepmother.
Of course, ”Tadpole” is ultimately Oscar’s story. The title is the young man’s childhood nickname, and the 25-year-old Stanford (his brief credits include a recurring role on NBC’s ”Third Watch”) does a splendid job of projecting the fluid sexual and emotional development of a younger boy-to-man. But the best instinct of director Gary Winick (”The Tic Code”) and screenwriters Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller is to emphasize old-fashioned courtliness in this likable comedy — good manners that go a long way toward convincing viewers the movie’s got something fresh to say even while it’s set in familiar territory.
Where ”Rushmore” surprises and delights with its spiky depiction of sprawling American idiosyncrasy, ”Tadpole”’s more urbane, less complicated charms are specifically made in New York City. Winick and company are evidently at home in the neighborhood, appreciative of the local flora and fauna, and able to make zingy verbal and visual Upper West Side jokes with far less fanfare than, say, Woody Allen employs on the Upper East Side. And such a talent, as they say in Oscar’s nabe, ain’t chopped liver.