Jodie Foster's 'Little Man Tate' well-crafted but lacks genuine passion


Jodie Foster's feature directing debut, "Little Man Tate," is an efficient piece of feel-good fakery. It should trick a lot of people into thinking they're seeing something sensitive, but more discerning viewers will be annoyed by the narrative and emotional corners the film constantly cuts.

More disappointing than annoying are two of the mediocre performances turned in by the three leads. Foster herself -- considered by many the brightest of our under-30 actresses -- trowels on her Oscar-winning, blue-collar "Accused" mannerisms. As the troubled genius child of this force-of-life everywoman, young Adam Hann-Byrd does not harm the picture, but he brings no special spark to the character, either.

Only Dianne Wiest does unique and revelatory things here. She'd better, since she's saddled with the worst role in Scott Frank's script, that of a brilliant psychologist who specializes in nurturing gifted children. According to Frank, who also wrote the complicated "Dead Again," such brainy people are unfeeling automatons; credit Wiest for finding the subtle humor and humanity in this grossly schematicized part.

Technically, Foster exhibits command of the medium. But there is also an impersonal, craftsmanlike quality to the movie. For all of its ludicrous self-indulgence, "The Indian Runner" -- the filmmaking debut by that other Brilliant Young Actor, Sean Penn -- is a far more personal, passionate work.

"Tate" achieves its greatest success when emphasizing the isolation a gifted child, and by extension all children, can feel. At age 7, Fred Tate can paint impressionist masterpieces, play classical piano and solve brain-busting math problems without a calculator. He also has an ulcer and no friends at the school his single, cocktail-waitress mother sends him to.

But one thing his undereducated mother knows how to do is bond with her kid. She's an expert at soothing away the terror of his frequent nightmares and alleviates his loneliness with impromptu dances around their crummy apartment.

But the kid's brain clearly needs more stimulation, something Wiest's Jane Grierson is determined to stuff it with. First, she convinces the reluctant mother to let her take Fred to some intellectual think-off at Disney World. Then she talks the resentful mother into handing the kid over to her for the summer. Jane sends him to a university quantum physics class. Naturally, all of Fred's college-age classmates crib off his notes.

But he still has troublemaking friends. Harry Connick Jr.'s earthy musician contributes some older-brother affection, while George Plimpton does a mean imitation of a William F. Buckley-style blowhard. There's a trumped-up crisis and an unearned, happy coda.

Foster's affinity for this material is obvious. A Yale graduate, as well as a child star raised by a single mother, she knows the vicissitudes of Fred's situation firsthand. Yet that expected immediacy is the thing most sorely missing from "Little Man Tate."

You keep thinking it could be more specific and harrowing, its triumphs harder won yet more fulfilling, like Foster's own. The movie proves she has a bright future as a commercial director. Some of us were hoping, however, to greet an emerging film artist.

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