Home Pge, Site Index, Search, Help

‘Little Man Tate’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 18, 1991

After 25 years in front of the camera, Jodie Foster moves behind the Panaflex to direct "Little Man Tate," a proficient, tenderly told story of a child prodigy's search for social acceptance. As a movie Foster child herself, she is attuned to the movie's half-pint star, Adam Hann-Byrd, if not to its guileless recipe for happily reordering the whiz kid's universe.

Adam, a fourth-grader with circles under his basset hound eyes, debuts as 7-year-old Fred Tate, a brainiac whose extraordinary gifts in math, music and art don't help one bit when it comes to playing catch. Endearing as he is, Fred has no friends and has yet to discover his peers. On top of that, his mother is a loser, and he has ulcers from worrying about world hunger and ozone depletion.

Foster plays Dede Tate, a poor but cheerful cocktail waitress who dotes on Fred in her own feckless way. A single mother who remains a child herself, Dede treats Fred less like a son than a surrogate mate. That Fred calls his mother Dede and balances the checkbook tells all about their lopsided, love-struck relationship.

The relationship is thrown off kilter when Fred is discovered by brilliant child psychologist Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a grown-up prodigy who runs Odyssey of the Mind, a smart summer camp attached to her Grierson Institute. Though he's still something of a square peg, the sober Fred finds acceptance among the Brainy Bunch who accompany Dr. Jane on a six-week vacation.

Of course, Jane thinks she has it all over Dede when it comes to doing what's right for Fred. And against her better judgment, Dede turns the boy over to the clinician for the summer. Jane is supposed to be cool and orderly, a wire monkey mother who can't connect. "How come you're always talking like you're reading a book?" asks Fred, who read it in the script because it's certainly not in Wiest's performance. She mothered Edward Scissorhands, for goodness' sake.

In fact, both women are so likable that their contretemps are less dramatic than the sinking of a toy ship. The script by "Dead Again" writer Scott Frank gains most of its momentum from Fred's relationships with supporting characters handily portrayed by P.J. Ochlan and Harry Connick Jr. Ochlan enlivens the film's second act with his acerbic portrayal of a prodigy called "the Math Magician." And Connick sends Fred into crisis as a college kid who befriends and then grievously disappoints the youngster.

Even if he is more grown up than the rest of this lot of Peter Pans, Fred is not a little man at all. He needs a mother's love, a teacher's guidance and the companionship of friends. It's plain stuff, efficiently delivered. Far from Einsteinian in reach, "Little Man Tate" turns out to be "Home Alone" for genuises. Trouble is, eggheads aren't adorable.

Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help