You have to wonder if Jodie Foster would have won this year’s Best Actress Oscar — her second in three years — if she had not also turned heads a few months earlier by making her directorial debut with Little Man Tate. In retrospect, the Academy Award seems to have been a testament not only to her talent as an actress but also to the power she now wields within the film industry. After all, even though this intelligent heart tugger performed softly at the box office, it grew to be seen as an event, landing Foster on the cover of Time with the gurgling headline ”A Director Is Born.” More important, the film furthered her image as one of the few stars unaffected by coltish Hollywood neuroses — hardheaded, smart, and capable enough to do it all.

That determination is more apparent than ever when you watch Little Man Tate on video, even though the movie’s small missteps are paradoxically magnified by the small screen. Home viewing tends to remove a movie’s surrounding hoopla: In this case, it makes Tate look simply like an honorable, and for the most part honest, first film.

The story is disarmingly straightforward: Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd) is a mentally gifted 7-year-old boy torn between a working-class mother (Foster) who ignores his brains and a cold, uptight psychologist (Dianne Wiest) who ignores everything else. Plot aside, there’s pleasure in watching Foster stretch her new muscles in look-what-I-can-do visuals, like an opening shot that cranes down from the ceiling of a delivery room or the blue neon nimbi that only Fred can see. That these stunts jolt a viewer out of the movie’s mood is forgivable when the story is powerfully simple enough to reel one back in. Little Man Tate‘s ending, however, is more seriously awry: It’s ”happy” without feeling earned or genuine. Even so, it looks less of a cheat on TV, where we’re used to bland consolations.

Where Foster’s confidence really shows is in — no surprise — her handling of actors. Wiest gives perhaps her best, least twitchy performance to date; for once you don’t get the sense that she’s criticizing her role as she’s playing it. And Adam Hann-Byrd is an inspired choice just from the visual standpoint: With his jug ears and wide, worried, blinking-turtle eyes, he’s an eerily ancient-looking little boy. Foster coaches him to play for maximum vulnerability while steering him away from sentiment — an easy trick for a woman who once was the least sentimental child actor in movies.

Tellingly, the one performance that doesn’t ring true is the director’s. Dede Tate seems too brainy and stylish to be a dese-dem-dose cocktail waitress; Debi Mazar (GoodFellas), playing her coworker, is more convincingly trashy. Perhaps preoccupied with what’s going on behind the camera, Foster seems to be slumming here, merely playing a part. The real Jodie Foster keeps peeking through, though, and she looks very hungry. A thought bordering on heresy: Maybe she should devote all her energies to directing next time. The rewards — and awards — could be greater. B

Little Man Tate
  • Movie
  • 99 minutes