Little Man Tate

(Jodie Foster, USA, 1991)


Jodie Foster's directorial debut Little Man Tate is a disappointing movie. Perhaps it is unreasonable to be too disappointed; critics, after all, were loading some pretty heavy expectations onto Foster by recalling the remarkable list of filmmakers she has acted for, from Martin Scorsese and Claude Chabrol to Jonathan Kaplan and Dennis Hopper.

Perhaps wisely, Foster chose a quite modest project to start a new phase of her career.

The central idea of the film is promising. Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd) is a "little man", an especially gifted seven year old. He is a mathematician who sees numbers and vectors everywhere; an artist who dreams he is inside Van Gogh's paintings; and a sensitive soul who has developed an ulcer from chronically worrying over the state of the world.

Fred is torn between two powerful adult women – his mother Dede (Foster in another feisty working class part) and the child psychologist Jane (Dianne Wiest). Fred also has to contend with fellow prodigies like the already jaded sixteen year old maths genius Damon, and well-meaning but insensitive college friends like Eddie (singer Harry Connick Jr in a colourful but bizarrely brief cameo).

Little Man Tate could easily have been a furiously funny and unsettling portrait of a boy whose alienness reveals the strangeness of the world around him, a little in the manner of Barbet Schroeder's wonderful Reversal of Fortune (1990). Foster as director, however, opts for the simplest and most familiar emotional angles. Dede moves from resentment to appreciation of her son; Jane opens up to his warmth and spontaneity; and Fred himself learns what it is to be just a happy little kid.

Ultimately, I almost thought I was watching a movie-length episode of Doogie Howser, MD, or The Wonder Years on television. This little man would have been a lot more interesting if, at film's end, he was still worrying about the misery of the world.

MORE Foster: Anna and the King, Flightplan, Nell, Panic Room, Sommersby

© Adrian Martin February 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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