The prospects for Dede Tate (Jodie Foster) are limited. She's a high school dropout, a cocktail waitress, a single mother who has no contact with the father of her child. In short, her life is ordinary.
But then there's the matter of her son Fred (Adam Hann-Byrd). Fred - the title character of Little Man Tate - is a genius. He can read while he's still on zwieback; before his seventh birthday he's painting, writing poetry, and playing symphonies with the speed and precision of a concert pianist. On top of all that, he has apparently limitless skills in math and physics. Second grade, with its multiplication tables and why-I-like-pets essays, just doesn't seem like a challenge. Being a genius isn't all roses, though. Because his mind is so huge, Fred tends to worry too much - about impending nuclear annihilation, about famine, about ecological destruction. He looks like a normal seven-year-old - with huge car-with-its-doors-open ears and a conspicuous gap between his two front teeth - but his concerns are, well, more universal.
Though Dede tries to keep her son out of the spotlight, Fred's reputation somehow spreads, and he attracts the attention of Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a former prodigy who now operates a training academy for the ultragifted. Jane wants to maximize Fred's potential, but she's aloof and abrasive, and Dede resents her interest.
The tensions in this sort of film are painfully clear. Can Dede untie the apron strings and let her son explore his talents? Will Jane understand that gifted children need emotional as well as intellectual support? How will Fred treat his mother once he's been given a taste of the high-powered academic world? While Foster and Wiest are consummate professionals and Hann-Byrd makes an assured debut, the script (by Scott Frank, who also wrote Kenneth Branagh's brilliant Dead Again) never acquires much momentum. The scenes of prodigies at work have a sort of mental prurience - you'll scratch your own thick head, wondering how a seven-year-old can instantaneously extract the cube root of 3,796,416 - but Disney's The Strongest Man in the World was exciting too. (The answer, by the way, is 156. I had to use paper.)
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The film is strongest not in its treatment of the central triangle, but in its investigation of prodigies in general. Extremely talented children run the risk of overcommitting to their area of expertise and forgoing development in all other areas. Damon Wells (P.J. Ochlan), one of Jane's former charges, dramatizes this point nicely. As a nine-year-old numbers whiz, he became a performing star known as The MatheMagician, a talk-show favorite who would multiply twenty-digit numbers in his head. Now in his teens, Damon is an emotional mess, a sardonic bully with a splintered self-image. And he still wears his cape.
Despite the halo that seems permanently in place over her head, Foster makes an uneven directorial debut. Her attempts to subjectively portray Fred's genius - by showing numbers visibly swirling over his head and superimposing blue neon streaks behind pool balls - are amateurish and obtrusive. And even when she's operating with assurance, Foster refuses to bite off more than she can chew. As a result, Little Man Tate becomes Little Movie Tate, an inoffensive but insubstantial outing.
LITTLE MAN TATE
Directed by Jodie Foster; written by Scott Frank; with Jodie Foster, Dianne Wiest, Adam Hann-Byrd, Harry Connick, Jr., Danitra Vance, Josh Mostel, Mar Ya Zuke, P.J. Ochlan, and George Plimpton.
Now playing at major theaters in Dade and Broward counties.