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‘Little Man Tate’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 18, 1991

For her directorial debut, actress Jodie Foster has chosen "Little Man Tate," a TV-mawkish fable about a young boy with extraordinary intelligence. It's an aaaaaaw story, a fail-safe, intrinsically poignant project. To mess it up would take some kind of talent.

Foster doesn't mess it up. But, despite a Time magazine cover to the contrary, she is no new directorial force. Puh-leez. An intelligent individual herself, she's easily up to the task of steering this vessel along its morally preset course. Essentially the theme is, All Work and No Play Makes Tate a Dull Boy. Foster, the kid's (single) mother, loves her son dearly. But he is held back by his less-gifted colleagues at public school. Earthy, gum-chewing waitress Foster is not sophisticated enough to realize her son's intellectual needs.

Enter Dianne Wiest, who runs a child prodigy institute and takes her brilliant charges to an annual, smart-kid convention called "Odyssey of the Mind." When Wiest invites Tate (newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd) to spend a summer at her institute, Foster is torn between her maternal instinct and her son's intellectual needs. Should Tate stay a kid or leave home to boost his brain?

Only nature's abhorrence of a vacuum is more powerful than Hollywood's outrage over missed childhoods.

Wiest's one-note character stacks the fake odds. It's to her credit as a performer she gives the role any life at all. She conducts her lofty studies surrounded by cold, modern objets d'art. When Tate spends time with her, she has no idea how to treat him. She isn't just short on motherhood, she's blithely incompetent.

More button-pushing: She makes her minions sing German songs from her childhood. If Tate fulfills his household duties, she promises him, "We'll go to the symphony or rent a nice documentary." Perhaps she has Wagner in mind, or Leni Riefenstahl's agitprop films for the Third Reich?

As we know, all movie characters come to their senses in time for the end: Wiest has a complete change of attitude. Her character, however, remains counterfeit.

Those who flock to Foster movies, or affliction-of-the-week dramas, obviously need no warnings. But there's nothing more than patness and predictability to reward them. Foster has stated "Tate" was partially influenced by French filmmakers of the 1950s. To this end, she comes up with novice, pseudo-auteurist touches. When anything life-affirming occurs on screen, for instance, she floods the soundtrack with jazz. It's free-form, you see. In fairness, the movie has its passing moments. When Tate's elementary teacher asks which -- of a series of odd and even numbers -- can be divided by two, the little genius replies, "All of them." But Foster's crowning achievement occurs when Tate is observing a mathematical, game-show panel. When the host poses a particularly prohibitive stumper, the camera closes in on audience member Tate. Superimposed numbers somersault in complicated configurations before his eyes until the answer appears big, bold and blue. To the panelists' chagrin, he beats them to the answer. This purely visual moment illustrates the boy's god-given ease of calculation more effectively than anything else we see.

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