The new family-friendly love letter to NYC, "A Little Game," follows the struggles of a money-crunched, working class Manhattan family trying to navigate the public-private school divide, death and generational change.

The movie stars Makenna Ballard, 13, who plays a gifted child named Max mothered by an exhausted working chef (Janeane Garofalo), and whose father is a doting, hardworking building super played Ralph Macchio. Olympia Dukakis is Max's grandmother and F. Murray Abraham is a curmudgeonly Washington Square Park chess player who teaches Max how to be inspired by ambient occurrences in the city to make killer moves on the chess board.

"A Little Game," which opens Dec. 12 -- 18 at The Quad, 34, W. 13th St., just won the prize for best feature comedy in the International Family Film Festival. Ballard nabbed the Festival's award for best child actor.

Ballard, who is home-schooled, lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with her brother, the actor Zac Ballard, 12, her mother Deanna, a screenwriter, and father Robert, a software engineer.

 

Q: How did you, a relative unknown, snag such a plum role?

 

A: This is my first movie. My brother and I are in the Sacramento Music Circus and they fly actors in from New York. The parents of one child actor from New York got us in contact with their agent and we flew out and auditioned with Nancy Carson of Carson Adler Agency and we got signed. I was sent on an audition for "A Little Game" by my agent and got a couple call backs and found out I got the part. That was two years ago! The filming was only four months but post production takes a real long time. The director, Evan Oppenheimer was the best director -- he invited us into the editing suite and gave us a real master class in film.

 

You're home-schooled. What experiences did you use to play a kid who was bullied in school?

 

You think of times people have made comments or said things that were hurtful, but even if you haven't had that exact situation, you use your imagination. You just imagine how your character would have felt. But you're right: There are no bullies in my environment! I love my family. They're incredibly supportive. They ended up uprooting everyone just so we could move to New York (for the filming).

 

But auditions must be cut throat and full of psyche outs.

 

There are no mean people at all! Usually, it's quiet. Everyone is looking at their scripts. In New York, as far as auditioning for Broadway shows, you know a lot of people because the same kids audition for everything. It's not really a competition -- it's more whoever is best for the part and who the director sees for that part.

 

What did you learn about acting from the people you worked with?

 

I loved working with F. Murray Abraham. He was so incredibly nice and funny! He would always do a different thing on every take -- change up his performance each time, so the director had something new to pick from. I wasn't in a ton of scenes with Janeane Garofalo, but I learned from Ralph Macchio in the very first days. He would take time before shooting to get really quiet and really get into the mind space to be in his character. I thought, 'that's really smart,' so I did the same thing. I'd get really quiet and say 'Max' to become that person, my character.

 

How do your real parents differ from your parents in the movie?

 

My parents would never let me ride the subway by myself! They're more protective. But just like Max's parents, they love me a lot and want the best for me.

 

Your character has a difficult transition going from a public school to a private school, and we have lots of controversy in NYC around charter schools. What schools do you think are best?

 

I don't know a lot about that, but I'm completely content with home schooling. I love rigorous academics and with home schooling you can choose your curriculum and what works for you. I study Latin and am teaching myself Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. I'm a pianist and currently practicing three hours a day to be in the First Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival. I just really enjoy learning. It's something I love doing.

 

In the movie, F. Murray Abraham talks a lot about the difference between "city kids" and suburban kids. How are NYC kids different from other kids?

 

They have more avenues to pursue what they want to do! There are so many more opportunities because NYC is the hub of everything! The NYC environment is so electric -- there are so many different kinds of people crammed into that little island and so many different people to meet. There's just no place like it! There is a palpable energy there that never goes away. As a classical pianist and I would love to be there, just for Juilliard. I'm currently in final call for a new Broadway show and I'm hoping that will come through so I can go back.

 

What advice would you give to other kids who want to be actors, like you and your brother?

 

Gather as much knowledge as you can, because you never know when you will need it. Learning is a good thing to like: It will always serve you well. Just before I got this part, I taught myself how to play chess and it came in handy for the movie. Also, get involved in regional productions and keep going on auditions. There are lots of parts you won't get -- 99% of the auditions you go on you don't wind up getting -- but you have to keep trying because the right part is just around the corner.