From the Archive: Little Man Tate


Because today I want to this space to feature a film directed by a bad-ass woman. This was written for our weekly movie review radio show in the fall of 1991, which was a helluva year for Jodie Foster. Thankfully, she was duly awarded for her accomplishments.

It’s pretty easy to figure out what attracted Jodie Foster to Scott Frank’s screenplay Little Man Tate, the story of a youngster with pronounced talent who’s showered with attention because of that gift, and who has a deep, special bond with mother. It sounds remarkably like the story of Little Woman Foster, the child prodigy whose astonishing acting ability in her earlier roles earned her fame and awards, and whose strong connect with her mother helped keep her centered enough to survive it all and become one of the most power and most respected women in Hollywood. It is undoubtedly that striking similarity between Foster and the fictional Fred Tate that allows her to give this film the emotional depth it needs, and that Frank’s stilted, overly simplistic script doesn’t provide.

Foster’s attention-getting talent as a child was her acting. For seven-year-old Fred Tate, it’s art, music, physics, and mathematics. He creates beautiful chalk drawings on the playground blacktop and conquers seemingly impossible math problems in seconds. When this boy comes to the attention of Dianne Wiest, playing a woman who runs a private school designed to nurture young geniuses, she immediately decides that he belongs in her care, which would ensure that his brilliance is used to its full potential. But this directly counters the down-to-earth, normal upbringing that Fred’s mom, played by Foster, has always tried to give him.

Though this philosophical conflict is supposed to the core of the movie, the deck is stacked from the beginning. It’s made plainly clear that Fred does indeed want to be treated as a normal little kid. He’s more intrigued by Disney World than equations, more interested in learning about pool that learning about college physics. He doesn’t want to be the subject of a scholarly book. He just wants someone to eat lunch with at school.

Adam Hann-Byrd is the young boy recruited to play Fred, and his big, sad eyes perfectly relay the tragic loneliness that consumes the character. By the time that loneliness turns to confusion and sheer misery, there’s nothing you want more than a little happiness to come his way. Newcomer Hann-Byrd gives a deeply moving performance.

And while we’re on the subject of outstanding performances, Foster has delivered yet another one. With this film and The Silence of the Lambs, from earlier this year, Jodie Foster has solidified her place at the forefront of great modern actresses. There are few performers out there with a face as expressive as Foster’s. Each facial tic, eye movement, tentative smile, and hopeful glance speaks volumes. The script gives her a one-dimensional cipher, and Foster creates a full-fledged character.

As for her work on the other side of the camera, Foster shows a real flair. Her directing is unique and individualized. With the exception of a few unnecessary attempts to visualized the workings of Fred’s mind — which do nothing but indicate that geniuses think in shades of pale blue — her style never becomes obtrusive. The pacing is just right and images are often beautiful.

If only Foster had thought to eliminate the flighty mothering instincts Wiest develops when Fred lives in her home and the other ill-conceived lumps in Scott Frank’s script, then maybe she could have made Little Man Tate into a complete triumph. As it stands, she’s still created a warm, full-hearted film that deserves praise, just as little boy Fred deserves a friend beside him at the lunch table.

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