Saccharine Biopic ‘Gigi & Nate’ Is Saved by Two Powerhouse Female Performances

Saccharine Biopic ‘Gigi & Nate’ Is Saved by Two Powerhouse Female Performances

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Inspirational / aspirational movies are too good for me. If I get a whiff of anything sullied with a moral lesson (faith-based or otherwise), I recoil. By that measure, Nick Hamm’s Gigi & Nate – about the relationship between Nate (Charlie Rowe), a young quadriplegic, and Gigi, his capuchin monkey service animal – should be enough to send me into a sugar coma.

And, yes, it’s true that the platitudes sprinkled through the film are nearly as annoying as a daily aphorism. The courtroom showdown between overzealous animal rights activists and Nate is too weighted and dogmatic. And the absolutely terrible ending scene that explains to us in lifeless voiceover what we’ve just experienced viscerally diminishes a mostly well-done movie with a sweet central performance by the English actor Charlie Rowe, and two great roles for Marcia Gay Harden and the iconic Diane Ladd.

Rowe, in his mid-twenties when the film was shot, plays Nate Gibson from the ages of 17 to 23, and though the role is shot through with enough potential for melodrama, he underplays the emotional beats (except in his courtroom speech and the film-shrinking voiceover at the end) and allows us to intuit the subtle shifts of his fragile emotional state. Every now and then, Hamm exploits Rowe’s boyishness and sly smile – renders him so adorable that who could possibly object to a young man having an animal, even one that can be as violent as a capuchin monkey, as a service guide – and he piles it on whenever Gigi gets a chance to muss up Nate’s perfect mop top of hair. But every single one of Nate’s scenes with Gigi ring true, and they anchor the emotional baseline of the film.

It only makes sense that a movie about the nature of nurture gives its best roles to two formidable women. Marcia Gay Harden has been a journeyman actor since the mid-80s, but I’ve never seen her as fired up as she is here as Claire Gibson, Nate’s undaunted and fiercely protective mother. The role itself has been done before, and often, though Harden’s primal emotions and the directness of her acting cauterize the cliches. She matches spectacularly with Diane Ladd as her mother, Mama Blanche. You feel her in Claire, and in the long line of put-upon Southern women who’ve spent lifetimes outsmarting the fools who’ve underestimated them. Ladd, like Harden, is the most direct of performers. While Claire confronts the angry mob of activists outside the family home, Mama Blanche ambles out to the front yard and turns the hose on them. She’s comic relief, the voice of practicality, and the screen lights up every time she’s on it.

Don’t get me wrong. Gigi & Nate isn’t Oscar™ bait. It’s a comfortable family film that doesn’t shy away from reservoirs of pain and suffering, but also doesn’t let those pesky human (and animal) emotions get in the way of the obvious lesson we’re being taught. The presence of Harden and Ladd, elevating and molding the material to their strengths, mitigates the torture of the uplift.

Gigi & Nate, directed by Nick Hamm and starring Charlie Rowe, Marcia Gay Harden and Diane Ladd, is in theaters now.

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