The new feel-good drama “Gigi & Tate” taps into that well-worn but tried-and-true ‘a boy and his dog’ formula. Except this time it’s a boy and his capuchin monkey. Directed by Nick Hamm from a script by David Hudgins, “Gigi & Nate” tells the touching true story of an unexpected friendship and shows how it saved a young man’s life and brought a hurting family together following a devastating tragedy.
Charlie Rowe plays 18-year-old Nate Gibson who we first meet only a couple of weeks before he’s to head off for college. He has big plans and a bright future ahead. That is until his life is forever changed. Nate contracts bacterial meningitis after cliff diving. Nate is med-flighted to a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee where his parents, Claire (Marcia Gay Harden) and Dan (Jim Belushi) and his two sisters, Katy (Josephine Langford) and Annabelle (Hannah Riley) are given some heart-shattering news.
The movie leaps ahead four years where we learn Nate is a quadriplegic. Confined to a wheelchair and spiraling into depression, he finds solace in a capuchin monkey named Gigi. She was rescued from an abusive petting zoo in California and nurtured and trained to be a service animal. After some initial hesitation (by both Gigi and some of his family) Nate and the pint-sized primate bond. They develop a tender relationship that not only helps Nate and his outlook on life, but helps bring a splintering family back together.
But these days it seems like we always have to have an antagonist. Here we get it in the form of an absurdly one-note animal rights activist named Chloe Gaines (Welker White). She heads a group called Americans for Animal Protection, and she immediately puts Nate and Gigi in her legal crosshairs. The second half of the movie gets bogged down in their room-temperature conflict that includes a laughably phony protest sequence outside the Gibson’s home and some tensionless courtroom drama.
The clunky storytelling doesn’t exactly help things. The movie tends to skimp on details, often bypassing opportunities for some good character building. For example, there’s an early scene where we seen Nate in such a bad state of mind that he attempts to take his own life. But less than a minute later we see him at a service animal training facility, smiling and eager to meet Gigi for the first time. There’s not a single scene devoted to showing how Nate went from completely broken and suicidal to optimistic and excited. It turns out to be a reoccurring frustration.
While it’s hard not to take note of the Gibson family’s wealth, Hamm and Hudgins do a good job of helping us see the people beyond the privilege. The filmmakers put in the effort to connect us with this tight-knit family as they each try to cope with Nate’s condition in their own ways. As with other story elements, sometimes the movie breezes past opportunities to make this family dynamic even richer. But as a whole, we get a good sense of who these people are and of their efforts to recover individually and collectively.
And then there’s Gigi. She’s brought to life by blending the work from a real capuchin monkey named Allie with digital effects. Of course we get a few saccharine scenes of animal cuteness meant to melt our hearts. But as a whole, the filmmakers use Gigi smartly and to great effect. She plays a pivotal part, not just in realizing the story, but in opening up a number of themes the movie is interested in. She too ends up undercut by some of the second-half sloppiness. But as animal portrayals go, Gigi is used well and has an undeniably heartwarming presence.
I can’t say enough about the movie’s message of hope and triumph. I love what it says about coping with tragedy and overcoming adversity. Yet while “Gigi & Nate” is full of compelling themes and scenes that are tender and earnest, it’s hampered by some nagging frustrations that make it hard to focus on the more meaningful moments. The corny villain angle, the jolts in the pacing, some wobbly performances – they pulled me out of a movie that really hinges on our emotional investment. “Gigi & Nate” is out now in theaters.