Little Man Tate (1991): Jodie Foster’s Directing Debut, Starring Dianne Wiest and Herself

Jodie Foster and Dianne Wiest star in Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster’s promising but flawed feature directorial debut, about the difficulties of a working class mother who raises a brilliant kid.

Foster plays single working class mom Dede Tate, a young well-meaning woman who is doing her best to raise her brilliant-but-lonely son Fred on her meager salary as a waitress.  She’s all heart and emotions.

Dianne Wiest plays her opposite, Jane Grierson, a bright but lonely femme, who spots Fred’s genius and wants to enroll him in her school for the gifted.   Unlike Dede, she’s all intellect and rational goals, and of course, clumsy in the kitchen department and lacking domestic skills.

Foster and Wiest both give sensitive performances, conveying the selfishness in each character’s desire to have Fred to herself, as well as the pain in not being able to fulfill all his needs on her own.

But ultimately, the actresses are defeated by the schematic narrative that juxtaposes two women who represent types rather than full fleshed individuals.  The ideal mother, according to this film, is one that combines the traits of both women.

Adam Hann-Byrd gives a compelling performance as Fred, showing intelligence and resilience without being too cute or precious.

Foster’s direction is uneven and unsteady. There are some fun, whimsical scenes, in which she reveals the quiet exhilaration of Fred’s mental leaps, as when a pool game suddenly becomes a collision of forces.  But other scenes are just static and message-oriented.

Lacking fluency, the movie is not only simplistic in the manner of a TV melodrama, but also too somber and earnest, with strong elements of anti-intellectualism.