[box cover]

Little Man Tate

Jodie Foster's 1991 directorial debut, Little Man Tate, is one of those filtered-through-memory movies, offering a look back at oddball incidents from the childhood of prodigy Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd). We know that it's a look back because the film begins with voice-over narration by Fred; we also know it because the film deals in absolutes, in either/ors, as if seen through the memory of a child. The seven-year-old Fred that we meet is a brainiac with extraordinary gifts in math, music and art. However, he's a wash-out when it comes to sports and social skills and has no friends except his mother, Dede (Foster). Dede, a single mom, is something of a loser — a never-was dancer who works in a cocktail bar — but her saving grace is that she loves Fred with all her heart. Perhaps she even loves him a little too much, treating him like a surrogate mate, confiding in him, swing-dancing with him, and relying on him almost as an equal. When Fred attracts the attention of Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a child psychologist who runs a school for gifted kids, he has the chance to fully explore the almost limitless possibilities of being a child genius — but soon finds that a life devoted exclusively to the mind (with Jane) is as incomplete as a life devoted exclusively to the heart (with Dede). Foster is superb in Tate as a mother who is incapable of understanding what her genius child really needs, but willing to sacrifice to get him what he wants, while Wiest is chilly, brittle, yet sympathetic as a former child prodigy who has grown into a woman who devotes herself to her small circus of young intellectuals. Harry Connick Jr. has a small role as a young man who befriends Fred, perhaps the first person in his life who genuinely likes him with no strings attached. But the actor who almost steals the film is P.J. Ochlan as Damon Wells, the "Mathemagician" — a truly obnoxious teen in a black cape with a phenomenal ability with numbers (when Fred asks Damon if he has any friends, he replies "Wake up and face north, twink. I'm an asshole. Assholes don't have friends.") Little Man Tate is a beautiful film, with conscious but not overwhelming art direction that contrasts the warmth and chaos of Fred and Dede's world with the stark, geometrically precise European-furniture-world of Jane and her Grierson Institute. MGM's DVD offers a clean, sharp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1 anamorphic) and terrific Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, allowing the ample dialogue to take center-stage even when the almost-but-not-quite-too-much jazz score is in full swing. The commentary track by Foster is engaging, as she alternates between lengthy extemporizing on the nature of jazz, filmmaking, or single-motherhood; periods of complete silence, punctuated by an "ah" or "oh"; self-deprecating over-explanation ("If I knew then what I know now, this scene wouldn't look nearly as cheesy"); and interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes (Scott Frank wrote the screenplay as a college undergrad, with the original story being a very black comedy "with lots of people dying in it" — the project was attached to director Joe Dante at one point). Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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