Films about highly gifted children tend to be fairly hit or miss, especially in Hollywood productions, where giftedness is often associated with cuteness. Sometimes, however, everything falls into place, and that’s very much the case with Jodie Foster’s debut directorial feature – a soulful, searching examination of the relationship between Fred Tate, a highly gifted child played by Adam Hann-Byrd, his mother, Dede, a cocktail waitress and former exotic dancer played by Foster herself, and the gifted education specialist, Jane Grierson, played by Dianne Wiest, who takes him under her wing, and enrols him in her exclusive, highly selective educational program. For the most part, the film plays out in terms of Dede and Jane’s’s different efforts to deal with Fred’s giftedness – Dede doesn’t want it to be a stigma, whereas Jane’s wants to showcase it as much as possible – as well as Fred’s own efforts to come to terms with his radical difference from the people around him. Blessed with both a prodigious mathematical and musical capacity, but also an additional artistic intuition and sensitivity, he’s easily the most adult character in the entire film, and indeed is actually much older than any of the other adults in terms of his mental age. It becomes clear early on that his true peers are not merely adults, but highly gifted adults, displacing him, intellectually, from all but the most rarefied company, even as he strives to make himself known and understood to everyone around him, and his mother most of all.
As might be expected, then, Little Man Tate stands or falls on the performance of Hann-Byrd, with Dede and Jane initially relegated to supporting characters, figures occupying the fringes of his enormous sensorium and intellectual apprehension of the world. It’s fortunate, then, that Hann-Byrd puts in an astonishingly adult performance, managing to come across as an adult character – the most adult character – without the slightest hint of precocity or pretension, often anticipating the intensities of feeling and perception relayed by Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. In this case, Fred’s augmented apprehension isn’t supernatural, but it might as well be, for all that the script is able to process or comprehend it, with his moments of insight usually figured in negative terms, as a series of empty voids that puncture and depart from the soulful naturalism that forms the film’s main stylistic signature. For the most part, these take the form of domestic spaces that have been hollowed out and postmodernised, as if Fred’s intelligence represents something beyond the scope of the film, or as if he is perpetually on the verge of being housed and framed as display, presentation or specimen, at least once he arrives at Jane’s special school. More specifically, Foster tends to frame him with fractallated geometric structures that at once evoke the capacity of his mind to glimpse the hidden scaffolds and underlying structure of the world around him, as well as the extent to which his mind has envisaged, and partially built, a world that remains obscured to the rest of us, and even remains obscured to him at times – a world that affords him endless play, but that also isolates him from others as well.
In other words, Little Man Tate follows in a long tradition of equating prodigious intelligence with new forms of perceptual and technological mediation, a gesture that tends to preclude any really nuanced depiction of gifted education, and indeed any depiction of education at all, since the gist of the film often seems to be that giftedness is, in itself, inimical to education: “The genius learns without study and knows without learning.” No surprise, then, that giftedness here often feels more like a category of fantasy, or science fiction, than a category of pedagogy, which perhaps reflects the fact that gifted education, as a distinct subset of educational theory, was only just starting to come into widespread visibility at this time as an option in primary and secondary education. As a result, the whole point of Jane’s school is to display and promote genius as a spectacle, rather than gifted education as a process, since there is virtually no teaching at all in the film, with Jane’s entire practice appearing to consist of identifying gifted students, gathering them together, and then leaving them more or less to their own devices. Similarly, there’s no sense that geniuses might be educated or extended further, or any constructivist approach to genius; they instead simply appear fully-formed, devoid of the developmental contingencies that can make the other, non-human characters seem so classically and conventionally “human” by comparison. At moments, the children in Jane’s care almost seem to be relegated to a different species, or to the realm of the mechanical (or cyborg), especially in her efforts to make a documentary about them, which commences with her orchestrating and shooting Fred’s first encounter with an Apple Mac in a particularly tremulous and exoticising manner.
Yet if Little Man Tate isn’t all that compelling – and sometimes downright silly – when it comes to the depiction of genius, then it more than makes up for it in the the triangular relationship between Fred, Dede and Jane, which is in many ways the main subject of the film. Indeed, it often feels as if the oddness of Fred’s genius only exists to contour the oddness of this triangular relation, which emerges gradually over the course of the film, but starts with the fact that Fred has no discernible father: “Dede says I don’t have a Dad – she says I’m the immaculate conception.” As that quote might suggest, even Fred’s relation with Dede is set somewhat awry from that of a regular mother-son rapport, and not simply because he calls her by her Christian name, but because in many ways he is the adult in their relationship, parenting her as much as (if not more than) she parents him. That in itself would make for something of an eccentric film, but in an even more surprising gesture Little Man Tate never makes all that much of Fred not knowing his biological father, and is quite content to frame Fred and Dede as their own special kind of odd couple, without the need for some kind of paternal authority or intervention. Not only does that make for a defiantly unapologetic vision of single motherhood, but it reverses the parental relation in ways that render Little Man Tate something of a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver, and a pretty plausible vision of how Foster’s character from that film might look some fifteen years into the future.
Of course, since this is a Hollywood film, Foster can’t entirely disregard the issue of Fred’s father, but to her credit she deals with it in a wonderfully cursory and parodic manner, by way of an accelerated second act that almost plays as an entirely separate film – a comedy in which we follow Fred as he enrols as an undergraduate and settles into campus life, trying to avoid one pitfall after another while blithely allowing adult students to mooch off his notes. Here, he meets Eddie, played by Harry Connick Jr., a funky adoptive father figure who takes him for zany motorcycle rides around campus, teaches him to climb trees, and shares with him some of the secrets and life lessons gleaned from years of being a semi-professional musician. At this point, Little Man Tate momentarily feels like a much older film, drawing on the classical Hollywood fascination with seeing children act like adults, or in roles normally ascribed to adults. In the process, the prospect of a restored father figure becomes coterminous with the precocity of the child actor himself (or herself) as a spectacle, with the result that Hann-Byrd’s uncanny ability to evade precocity renders this adoptive fatherhood narrative moot from the moment it has begun, with Connick Jr. leaving the film as abruptly as he entered it. Rather than reiterate Fred’s need for a father figure – or the sense that his giftedness is merely a symptom of an absent father figure – this zany second act beautifully clarifies that Fred is already too much of an adult to be truly precocious, since he’s not a child playing at being an adult, but just is an adult (and, if anything, it’s the adults all around him who really seem to be playing at being grown-ups).
While Fred’s rapport with Eddie may be brief, then, its brevity is the point, displacing the question of his absent father – along with the unspoken assurance that this absent father might be able to “resolve” his giftedness – and turning Little Man Tate into a film about a child with two mothers, both of whom might differ dramatically in their orientation to his giftedness, but both of whom are mothers nonetheless. For the most part, the third act proceeds by following Dede and Jane as they become more and more dissociated from their respective domestic backdrops – Dede becomes disillusioned with a move to Florida, Jane drifts away from her husband, home life and professional life – but also become more and more dissociated from any immediate impact on Fred’s life either. The upshot is that they are, increasingly, only able to commune with Fred through each other, producing a rapport that becomes quite tender, and almost screwy in the way in which it reframes their initial antagonism as a more combative kind of affection. By the end, they have both been displaced from any direct contact with Fred, having to instead mediate their relationship with him through each other, culminating with a quite extraordinary conclusion in which Dede resuscitates a close friend’s son while watching Fred recite a poem by heart for Jane on live television in front of an admiring audience. If Fred’s giftedness, and strangeness, precludes any efforts to commune with him head on, then Little Man Tate opts for something close to lesbian parenthood – in spirit, if not ever directly or narratively articulated as such – as a way of approaching him from the oblique and eccentric angles he requires, in one of the most plaintively and gorgeously original family dramas of the 1990s.