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NYC charm breathes life into tired story line

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‘TIO Papi’ ★★1⁄2

Ray Ray Joey Dedio

Elizabeth Warden Kelly McGillis

Gilly Frankie Faison

Cheeky Elizabeth Rodriguez

Nico Dax Roy

Active Fox Productions presents a film directed by Fro Rojas. Written by Joey Dedio and Brian Herskowitz. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, mild rude humor and brief language). Opens Friday at Regal Chicago North 14, AMC Cicero14 and Rosemont Muvico 18.

Updated: October 7, 2013 11:32AM

“Tio Papi,” an indie comedy-drama about a patched-together family, has the feel of one of those old-fashioned made-for-television movies. Filmed in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, the film captures the problems a dedicated bachelor faces when he becomes the caretaker of his sister’s children. It’s a tired story that’s been told many times before.

The twist here is that the story centers on an extended Puerto Rican family that includes the prerequisite group of kindly, sometimes wacky friends. “Tio Papi” (aka Uncle Daddy) captures this gritty and quaint section of New York in a delightful way.

It’s bursting with color and cultural icons that encompass a joy for life that permeates the entire film.

Ray Ray (Joey Dedio) works hard at his job and socks away money in hopes of fulfilling his dream of moving to Miami. At night he joins his friends at clubs where they drink, joke and have a good time. It’s here we learn he’s just broken up with Cheeky (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a clear-sighted schoolteacher whose plans for the future do not match his. His mantra is he’s never wanted “kids or a family, pets or plants” and does not want to be tied down. So Cheeky has moved on, but you can tell by the look in her eyes that she still has a soft spot for him.

After his sister and her husband are killed in a car crash, their six children (all adorable, maybe too much so) are forced on next-of-kin Ray Ray by taciturn social worker Elizabeth Warden (Kelly McGillis), where they will remain until she can make other arrangements that will most likely split up the children between several foster families.

But Ray Ray’s lifestyle is not welcoming — his small apartment is a mess, there’s no food in the fridge and he’s behind on his rent. “The sooner they come in and take the kids, the sooner I get my life back,” Ray Ray confides to a friend.

In the meantime, the friends and the children help give his home a makeover. And despite his reluctance to jump into the fray, he nevertheless finds himself drawn in. He escorts the children (ages 6-16) to their new schools; he deals with their problems; he tries to be their friend. And as he becomes more involved in their lives, he begins to understand the real meaning of family.

As Ray Ray, Dedio has a nice twinkle in his eye that turns to frustration and concern when he realizes he must shed his immature ways and become the proverbial responsible adult. (But that twinkle will not be denied.) And Rodriguez is perfectly cast as a determined, empathetic woman who stands her ground with Ray Ray. As for the children, each gives heartfelt and often scene-stealing performances, especially the momentarily mute Nico (Dax Roy) whose best friend is a stuffed squirrel.

There’s nothing offensive in the relentlessly upbeat “Tio Papi.” It’s just all so polite and saccharine. Life lessons are learned every few minutes, and the ending is telegraphed from the beginning.

Screenwriters Dedio and Brian Herskowitz do not favor the complex; instead they skim over these lessons and never dig to deep into any of it. Even though this film is aimed at a family audience, a little more depth would have made the story more realistic and believable.

Also from Active Fox Productions opening Friday at the same theaters is “36 Saints,” a drama about two New York City detectives searching for a serial killer. Running time: 83 minutes. Rated R (for violence).

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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