Identity is such a loaded term. Potentially, it can spawn so many offshoots of its actual meaning and somehow always ends up on the same lap of the world; our place in the larger scheme of things determined by how we are viewed by its mortal inhabitants and equally designed around /by our actions. But we all know thrust is on the manner in which we control our very identity, as an individual, as a rounded personality, almost always on such diverse planes of earthly experiences that one slide show of our lives can hardly be enough to determine our selfhood. It is a running kaleidoscope, a running commentary, stakes are always high to fit it within certain parameters and burdens amounting to it are trivial as they are earnest.Come to think of it, our identity actually is never our very own. From the day we are separated from our umbilical cords, we are somebody’s pride, a name attaching itself with a certain lineage, a representative of a family and very soon extending our welcomes to society and the bigger world. You may think, as a child how can we know who we are and what we have to set ourselves as to be meaningful?
The construction of the IDENTITY gets, sets, goes from there, whether we believe it or not. Finding a footing on those very first laps is enough to establish the pace of things to come. Learning to broker our contacts with society is given the go ahead sign right then and there. Picture the first day of school when we refuse to let go of our parents’ hands and bawl all the way to the classroom. The untangling of our hands from them and being initiated into the classroom is the very first step for our resourceful entry in the world at large. I remember I cried and then when the first classmate offered me a biscuit, I calmed down and in no time settled into the rhythms of sweet childhood. It is a rite of passage and continues to be so, as we are hounded by various turning points over the period of years to follow. Our minds often go back to that first exposure. We are on our own when the question of forging identities arises. As child is the father of man, that internal realization is more creditable than we realize.Then what happens when at seven years of age, a childhood with more than traces of adult strains beckons? What is the burden and responsibility for the adult world to safeguard such a breakthrough? What is inspiration couched in worldly experience? Is exception to be in the here and now? Doesn’t ring a bell? Well with the work I talk about here, it becomes crystal clear and is in the interest of the most humane and humbling approximation. It is a profound dilemma but is in the daily symmetry of life, love and evolution. Brief as it is, this is my original writing on LITTLE MAN TATE, with few extra lines, originally written by me on the 14th of April, 2015. Like the tan lines, sunbathed air and frazzled hair of the previous movie CrissCross, irony in interdependence is sought and the legacy of identity since childhood are points I write about.
Little Man Tate(1991)- another MGM classic
Cast: Adam Hann Byrd, Jodie Foster, Dianne Wiest etc.
Director: Jodie Foster.
The fact that Jodie Foster is a trailblazer is no mystery, has never been. That said, being a believer in the finer nuances of frank admission, her directorial debut LITTLE MAN TATE didn’t fully satiate my creative buds the first time I saw it on betokened MGM channel. Maybe siesta hours did not suit me( it was late afternoon going on evening) or a good mood eluded me. Or maybe I was expecting a little too much. That’s the thing, you can’t always discover latent greatness in a random stockpile of opportunities. There has to be a time and a place. It turned out a conducive atmosphere and pin drop attention was just what was required of me to unravel its lucid, heartening simplicity. In this simplicity, facts and figures of life are more pronounced and the effect is liltingly permanent.
Like much of her exemplary, genre defying career, Foster’s creative brainchild is not another brick in the wall. Its concerns hit home for her, considering she was a child star unlike any other ever before her and since, wiring her wiser beyond her years exception with a mature understanding of impending death as a cancer stricken girl in Echoes of a Summer, imbuing her child streetwalker Iris with an intense foregrounding in Taxi Driver and playing mother hen to her group of seventies friends as the worldly wise constituent of universal teenage issues named Jeannie in Foxes. I have seen all these excepting the first and her performances were awe inspiring and real to a T. What’s even commendable is that she never fell for the usual teen star excesses and relinquished many offers for attending college, to make sure she had her cards right if the precarious culture of filmmaking ever left her high and dry as it happens with majority of child stars. It’s a miracle of her own making that she ended up carving a niche further as an adult star with aplomb. She was always practical and no nonsense, an ethic she gloriously brought to the screen.
As her Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award speech demonstrates, integrity is her talisman, her medallion of truth is to herself. Purists should read her interview with legendary cinema writer Roger Ebert from the time when her film Foxes was to release, it’s honest and endearing beyond compare, telling us that we should foremost aspire towards a genuine standpoint before others spring up.So it’s natural she directs this film with the clarity it has. The classic script by Scott Frank conveniently then is in a league of its own. She understands Fred’s dilemma inside out and by playing his mother, she channels her own from her heydays. Little Man Tate has concerns aimed at spotlighting scattered and more fundamental side of genius. Child prodigies are ironically meted out the treatment of intellectual superiority while being alienated from the mainstream on many fronts. It is here that we see them relegated to be observed as figments of civilization and real life figures existing in a world of mediocrity by default as when Fred recites a poem on death in his classroom and is coldly received by even his teacher. Put aside for scrutiny, certain kind of detachment and left to their iconoclastic devices, it’s not so much they who spell out their unique status but complexities of others that make them the odd ones out. Real world can’t always handle exceptional merit and in Fred, we see that first hand. There’s a heartbreaking moment where he ends up celebrating his birthday with only his mother as nobody of his age has turned up.Inspired by her own life script and by lives of myriad others, Foster swears off forced sweep of overt dramatics, in a continuation of her own portfolio boasting of such true to life solitaires as the ones mentioned before as also The Silence of the Lambs( also released the same eventful year as this). It is as it is. In this little gem with a big heart, she plays Dede Tate, a working class mother to a born genius, seven year old Fred Tate, played by an exceptional Adam Hann Byrd. He is adept at conveying the ironies of his inherent identity here with surety and a dim light in his eyes. In the absence of any backstory regarding the absentee father, their joint world is an oyster to both, individually and collectively.
“Let’s face it, you are the best thing that ever happened to me” – Dede.
At an age where other folks grasp basic language skills, Fred composes poetry, works of fine art, solves mathematical equations at the drop of a hat and has mastery at playing musical instruments. Evidently, there’s a world outside waiting to exploit reserves and enigmas of his beautiful mind. Again the private and the public is tugged against each other.Foster nurtures the mother – son bonding here in a bid to enhance its realistic sense of verisimilitude and she succeeds in bringing us up, close and personal with her struggles to ensure her son’s upbringing in a normal environment like other kids. But that’s easier said than done. There are serene, awkwardly natural passages where this relationship cannot be defined under ‘normal’ heads as Fred’s intellect is much higher than even his mother, a woman of modest means and limited economic and educational privileges. I remember he reads something about global state of affairs in the newspaper and has a more articulate reply to it in her presence; that is the moment of truth where all windows open that he is indeed different perhaps not so much by virtue of his ideas but by their application at such a tender age. As one of the characters of an adult prodigy played by David Hyde Pierce says about him in the course of the screenplay , “it’s not what he knows, it’s what he understands.”
So he is an outsider. Outcast. An equivocal alien and uninvited guest belonging to the slipstream of social hierarchy. Nevertheless, he finds his moment under the sun.
One fine day, a former prodigy Jane(Diane Wiest) beckons him to her institution for gifted brethren and the turning point ensues for both. It’s an overhaul for everyone and a conflict ensues, portrayed with care and restraint. The inner churning of mother and son is full of quiet gravitas. A classic scene comes up as Jane meets Dede, “He just wants to be a normal, happy little kid” – Dede
“well, he’s not normal, thank God, and he’s certainly not happy” – Jane.
This tension is at the heart of their genuine concerns for a kid like Fred. Once he enrols at the institution, he meets a discontented kindred who wears a cape , christened the Mathmagician (P. J Ochlan) and gradually bonds with him, leading to a thaw in the latter’s temperament. This prodigious confluence is a revelation and he guides Fred to use his gifts effectively. He also makes it to university and a twenty something student ( Harry Connick Jr) is designated as a friend until a comical/ practical situation allows him to distinguish polarizing viewpoints.Further Fred questions the emotional stasis on Jane’s part, a mechanical being open only to set conventions of her ‘world’ and who has hardly outgrown the same dilemmas as Fred’s despite her sophistication and advanced age, and ultimately the distance of separation from his mother pricks him. So where does he turn to and make a choice? It’s a timeless issue besetting every individual and in his case it acquires an emotional weight of its own. In this regard, the part where he mouths those dialogues, ” my mother is dead” while on a television show is so poignant. You must see it to believe it. It’s a film that respects everyone’s sincere point of view.
Foster has conviction invested in each and every part and never does one feel it attempts to be too self involved or too serious. It’s winningly natural and so heart warming. The performances are uniquely realized, especially Adam’s, a man-child espousing a maturity beyond his years and yet pining for the fun and games of childhood. Dianne Wiest settles down as a major presence, offsetting her picture – perfect diurnal grace with the vulnerability of someone with a lifetime of social immobility to boast.
In the end, Little Man Tate does manage to enlighten us about the difficult middle path broached between exception and convention. The climax, where Fred happily celebrates his eighth birthday sorrounded by all his kindred and where Jane finally lets go with genuine joy, fulfills the resolve and bittersweet trajectory this wonder follows.Every person contributes constructively to the overall development of personalities and it is as much about Fred as about Dede.
So in all, ART imitates LIFE as Foster, an acting wunderkind since her youngest years, trains her lenses on this consummate tale of an extraordinary child. It’s an extraordinary marvel and deserves more recognition hence I write about it. It’s a milieu she not only knows, she instinctively understands. Adam Hann Byrd, who is an adult now, should take pride in his achievement here. This article is to celebrate the spirit of this enduring work of art. I ask you to be enriched by watching this one, for sure.**This essay, too, appeared first on my Wattpad essay collection A LETTERED SOUL.