Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd), who's only 7, can solve mind-bending math problems in an instant, can play the piano like a maestro, can sketch neo-Renaissance drawings in multicolored chalk on the school sidewalk. More than that, he's philosophically advanced he's got ulcers from contemplating world problems like the depleting ozone layer. Yet his precocious intellect can't win him the thing he longs for most: a friend.
Little Man Tate, the first film directed by Jodie Foster, sounds touching and clever, like a pint-size Rain Man. There are moments when the spectacle of a brilliant little boy who longs to be just like other kids will strike a chord in anyone who ever spent a lonely day in grade school. Foster, though, is working with a weirdly half-baked script (by Scott Frank, who also wrote Dead Again), and her direction feels tentative, unfocused. It's never really made clear why Fred, for all his mental achievements, has such a difficult time befriending other children. Newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd, with his wide-eyed stare, certainly projects the aura of passive, angelic awareness that prematurely smart kids can have. But we aren't shown how Fred's genius has shaped his personality, his moment-to-moment demeanor. He just seems like a very serious little boy, and since he's basically quiet and sweet, it's hard to believe that none of his classmates would deign to show up at his birthday party. Foster, too, misses the chance to have fun with Fred's intelligence. Except for one or two moments, he doesn't talk about what's on his mind. And so the whole premise of the movie that Fred's sci-fi intellect has made him an outcast remains a hollow conceit.
Against the better judgment of his nurturing, uneducated mom (played by Foster), Fred is sent to the Grierson Institute and ends up participating in Odyssey of the Mind, a kind of intellectual summer camp for whiz kids. There he meets Damon (P.J. Ochlan), an adolescent math genius who's so alienated he's turned himself into a full-time jerk. This is the liveliest part of Little Man Tate. Ochlan gives the movie a blast of freaky, nerdish resentment; he shows you that smart kids aren't necessarily nice. And when Fred gradually brings Damon out of his arrogant shell, their friendship the very fact that Fred could see the good in such a dark-spirited adolescent has authentic layers. Then, just like that, Damon drops out of the movie, pretty much for good. Later on, Fred spends a semester at college and meets another older pal, an average-IQ frat-house jock (Harry Connick Jr.). Then the jock disappears too. Little Man Tate keeps introducing characters and narrative lines that seem promising, but it doesn't sustain them. The movie feels like three Afterschool Specials welded together.
Finally, Fred goes to live with Jane (Dianne Wiest), the well-meaning but emotionally remote child psychologist who runs the Grierson Institute. The movie becomes a showdown between Fred's two ''moms'': his real mother, who loves him but can't relate to his mind, and the achievement-oriented surrogate who can't relate to any other part of him. Foster, spitting out cherry pits from the windowsill and speaking in a deze-dem-doze accent, seems to be playing an intellectual's caricature of a working-class single mother. She's one of the sharpest actresses around, yet her intelligence hampers her when she plays earthy, instinctual characters. Regardless of how hard she tries to camouflage it, the whirring of Jodie Foster's mind is always apparent. (It's this quality that made her so riveting in The Silence of the Lambs.) And Dianne Wiest's endearing daze keeps undercutting her character's ''coldness.'' The movie might have been more arresting had the two actresses switched roles.
Little Man Tate feels like a series of missed opportunities. It's easy to watch, yet too much of the film is mired in cliché-think. Early on, Fred is being razzed by the kids at school when someone tosses a ball his way, knocking him over. It's a familiar image: the bright kid as spazolopolis. But didn't it occur to anyone making the movie that a child who's a wizard at everything from physics to classical music might have decent hand-eye coordination too? C+