Picks and Pans Review: Little Man Tate

updated 10/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jodie Foster, Dianne Wiest

How do you handle a precocious child? Do you leave his upbringing to parents (in this case, a single parent) who can't remotely match wits with him, or do you turn him over to an educator who can nurture his mind but not necessarily his heart?

This is the delicately difficult question addressed in Tate by Foster (see story, page 80). Just 28, she directs here for the first time and also stars as the mother who can't quite comprehend just what she begat. That's little man Adam Hann-Byrd (a first-time actor straight from the New York City public-school system) who at 7 can flash through binary numbers but who also has nightmares, an incipient ulcer and a melancholy envy of the schoolmate who, as he wistfully narrates, "always gets to be kickball captain."

Foster is the doting mom, a cocktail waitress who wouldn't know a Rorschach test from a Mai Tai, but who can play the shadow game with her son when he, frightened by a dream, beckons her in the night. Wiest plays the director of a school for gifted youngsters who can open academia's doors for the boy but whose answer to his nighttime fears is a glass of water.

Tate unfolds as a sort of intellectual Stella Dallas; Foster tries desperately to hang on to the child whose mind, under Wiest's tutelage, grows galaxies apart from his mom's pedestrian notions.

Foster deals with this sensitive subject (and her own performance) with a sharp intelligence and a gentle hand. Scott (Dead Again) Frank's screenplay, though appealing, may be a little pat in its resolutions, but Foster's own clear vision carries the viewer past the bromides: She makes the film play as subtly and convincingly as a good novel. Onscreen she and Wiest make compelling antagonists as they vie for the boy's allegiance. Genius isn't everything. Foster tells us; then she makes her point dramatically, according to the dictates of her own awakening genius. (PG)

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