The film won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Score for Georges Delerue and received an additional nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Allan Burns. It also received two Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor for Laurence Olivier and Best Original Score for Delerue. As the film's young leads, Thelonious Bernard and Diane Lane both received Young Artist Award nominations as Best Actor and Best Actress respectively, as well as earning the film a win as Best Motion Picture Featuring Youth. It was the first film released by Orion Pictures.
Lauren King (Diane Lane) is a highly "book-smart" and affluent 13-year-old American girl living in Paris with her mother (Sally Kellerman), who works in the movie business, and stepfather (Arthur Hill). Daniel Michon (Thelonious Bernard) is a "street-smart" 13-year-old French boy who also lives in Paris with his father, a taxi driver. The two meet in the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, where a movie Lauren's mother is working on is being filmed and where Daniel is taking a school trip, and fall in love. Lauren's mother fiercely objects to the romance. When Daniel punches George, a friend of Lauren's mother who openly flirts with the married woman, at Lauren's birthday party for making a crude innuendo about Lauren, the two are forbidden to date. Lauren and Daniel soon meet Julius Santorin (Laurence Olivier), a quirky but kind elderly man, literally by accident. Daniel is unimpressed by him, but he fascinates Lauren with stories of his life, telling of a tradition that if a couple kiss in a gondola beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice at sunset while the church bells toll, they will be in love forever.
Told her family will be returning to America soon, Lauren hatches a plan to travel to Venice with Daniel. With the help of Julius (they cannot cross the border without an adult), to whom they claim they're visiting Lauren's sick mother, and 18,000 francs won on a horse race, the three travel by train but miss their connection to Verona after Julius gets into a conversation during the stop at the Italian border. In the meantime, Lauren's family spark an international investigation, believing she has been abducted.
They hitch a ride with an American couple from Columbus, Ohio, Bob and Janet Duryea (Andrew Duncan and Claudette Sutherland), who are touring Italy by car and also traveling to Venice. In Verona, the travelers go out to dinner together, where Bob Duryea discovers that his wallet has been stolen. Even though their winnings from the horse race were left on the train in Julius's vest, Julius offers to pay the bill with cash, perplexing Lauren and irritating Daniel, who suspects he stole it. The following morning at breakfast, the Duryeas notice Lauren's picture in an Italian newspaper, revealing her as a missing child. Julius has also seen the paper and intercepts Lauren and Daniel on their way back to the hotel, angry that Lauren lied to him about their true reason for going to Venice and that everyone will think he's a kidnapper.
Because they can no longer go back to the hotel, they join a local bicycle race to escape Verona. Julius soon falls behind and Lauren persuades Daniel to go back for him. They find his bike abandoned and him collapsed from exhaustion. Daniel worms his background out of Julius, who also confesses that he both picked Bob's pocket and stole the money for their train tickets, disappointing Lauren. Lauren then reveals that she will be moving back to the United States permanently in two weeks. She wanted to take a gondola to the Bridge of Sighs and kiss Daniel so as they could love each other forever. She berates Julius by dismissing all his stories as lies. Julius admits he lied about some things but insists the legend is not a lie. Daniel decides he still wants to go to Venice with Lauren, and Julius joins them.
In Venice, they spend the night in St. Mark's Basilica, sleeping in the confessionals, until a chance meeting with the Duryeas sets them on the run again hours before sunset. Julius hides them in a movie theater and gives them his remaining cash, promising to return a half-hour before sunset. As soon as they are inside, however, Julius turns himself in to police searching for them; despite being slapped around by an inspector, he refuses to reveal Lauren and Daniel's whereabouts. The two children asleep during the film and awake with just a few minutes remaining. Not knowing where Julius has gone and with so little time, Lauren and Daniel run to find a gondola, most of which are booked by tourists eager to see the sunset from the canals. They finally find an available gondola whose gondolier quotes a fare that is 3,000 liras more than Julius gave them. Daniel manages to cajole the gondolier into accepting what they have. The gondolier takes them within sight of the bridge but refuses to go further just as sunset arrives. Daniel pushes him into the canal and, as the bells of the Campanile church begin chiming, the two pull the gondola toward the bridge hand over hand using the pilings; this successfully enables the gondola to glide under the bridge. While the bells are still pealing, Lauren and Daniel kiss and embrace. In the police station, Julius finally reveals the two children's whereabouts.
A few days later, Lauren is back with both her mother and stepfather, preparing to leave for home. As she starts to enter the car, Lauren notices Daniel across the street, waiting to say goodbye to her. Her mother starts to object, but her stepfather tells Lauren to go ahead. She and Daniel share a final kiss, pledging not to become "like everybody else." Julius is sitting on a nearby bench, and Lauren bids him a tearful farewell. She runs back to the car, and Daniel follows it as it leaves, him and Lauren waving at each other.
Filming took place in Paris, France, as well as Verona, Venice and Veneto, Italy.
Following its initial release in 1979, the film received mixed reviews, with some being quite negative. In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby described the film as "so ponderous it seems almost mean spirited. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie about boorish American tourists and felt sorry for the tourists—which is one of Mr. Hill's achievements here. I'm sure nothing mean-spirited was intended, but such is the film's effect. This may be the main hazard when one sets out to make a film so relentlessly sweet-tempered that it winds up—like Pollyana—alienating everyone not similarly affected."
In his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the film only two stars, writing that the film "gives us two movie kids in a story so unlikely I assume it was intended as a fantasy. And it gives us dialog and situations so relentlessly cute we want to squirm."
Following its release on video and DVD, the film gained stronger critical support. In his review for DVD Movie Guide, David Williams called the film "one of those gems that doesn't seem too great on the surface, but manages to lift your spirits in such a way that when it's over, it makes you glad you ignored your initial feelings and checked it out anyway." Williams applauded the performances as "engaging from top-to-bottom", singling out Olivier's portrayal of Julius, the mischievous escort and matchmaker.
In his review in DVD Movie Guide, John J. Puccio wrote, "It's a lovely tale of pure and innocent love and the lengths that people involved in such a love will go to in their desire to ensure it. The movie can hardly fail to please even the most jaded audiences."
In his review in DVD Talk, David Langdon concluded, "A Little Romance fits into that category we might call the children's film for adults. It's smart, well written, acted and directed. If anything it will be remembered as Diane Lane's first movie and one of Laurence Olivier's last. The DVD is above average in all categories except audio but it is worth a look."
On the aggregate reviewer web site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 72% positive rating from top film critics based on 25 reviews, and an 86% positive audience rating based on 5,156 reviews.
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
This Tamil film Panneer Pushpangal in 1981 directed by P. Vasu and Santhana Barathy is inspired by this movie.