Hann-Byrd excels in 'Little Man Tate,' but the female leads fizzle

October 18, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

One can certainly understand why the former child star Jodie Foster was drawn to the materials of "Little Man Tate"; it must reflect the themes of her own childhood, in which her special gift held her forever apart from other children and projected her into early equality with adults

And her special gift as a director is for evoking the world of the lonely, bright child; the feeling of childhood isolation is exquisitely heartfelt, particularly as frail little Adam Hann-Byrd's vivid eyes fill up with hurt when the boobs of the world, in their boobish way, reach out to him with the casual cruelty that is the currency of childhood.

But nothing else in the film is of much consequence; it's like a session with a lackadaisical accountant who is likable, but cannot get anything to add up.

As Scott Frank's screenplay has it, Fred Tate (Hann-Byrd) has one of those one-in-a-billion brains, an instrument that when it is not composing world-class symphonic music or solving advanced logarithms is writing verse the equal of Yeats'. Alas, he is stuck in one of those one-in-seven childhoods, the illegitimate son of a working-class mother (Foster herself), much loved but wholly unnurtured.

Hann-Byrd is extraordinary: He is a luminous, preciously still child who never seems to strain for effect or consciously "act." He of course reminds one of the young Jodie Foster, equally eerie and precise in "Taxi Driver" or "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

But the script puts Fred in a tractor-pull between the virtuous mom and an ambitious professor of genius, played by Dianne Weist. Both women -- and, for that matter, the worlds that they represent -- are cartoons.

Foster's own working-class shtick, with its ostentatiously dropped g's and disagreeing subjects and predicates, is really wearing thin. It's strictly a phone-in of the same performance she gave in "The Accused." Moreover, director Foster's work-up of working-class culture is achingly derivative from half a thousand similar riffs.

But it's her sense of refined "high culture" where the movie really falters. Weist's Dr. Jane Grierson is a shrill, repressed authoritarian fool who can't even cook a dang meat loaf! She lives in a house utterly devoid of clutter but also cool as a mausoleum; she stands for a '50s cliche of the academic as ivory-tower idiot.

With neither of the contending forces real, the movie just doesn't quite work. And Foster keeps inventing and forgetting things. For example, George Plimpton does a bad impression of William F. Buckley -- same hair, same initials, same foppish affections and nasalized speech -- to no discernible effect, intermittently in the background.

The movie is definitely a case of a Hann-Byrd being worth two actresses rattling around in the bushes.

'Little Man Tate'

Starring Jodie Foster and Adam Hann-Byrd.

Directed by Jodie Foster.

Released by Orion.

Rated PG.

** 1/2

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