Producers: Piers Tempest, René Besson and Nick Hamm Director: Nick Hamm Screenplay: David Hudgins Cast: Charlie Rowe, Marcia Gay Harden, Jim Belushi, Josephine Langford, Diane Ladd, Hannah Riley, Emilio Garcia Sanchez, Zoe Colletti, Welker White, Tara Summers, Olly Sholotan and Allie Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Apparently intended as a feel-good-after-feeling-bad movie, Nick Hamm’s “Gigi & Nate”—a title that might make it sound like a romantic comedy—is instead a truly odd duck, if you’ll pardon the expression. It begins as a tale of a tragic injury to a strapping young man, morphs into an uplifting story of his halting emotional recovery through the agency of an unusual service animal, and then turns into a struggle between his family and a group of uncompromising animal-rights activists.
The film begins at the North Carolina summer home of the Gibson family. Claire (Marcia Gay Harden) is presiding over their Fourth of July celebration while her husband Dan (Jim Belushi) is off on a business trip. Daughters Katy (Josephine Langford) and Anabelle (Hannah Riley), as well as feisty grandma Blanche (Diane Ladd), are on hand, along with Anabelle’s boyfriend Travis (Emilio Garcia Sanchez). And the family’s golden boy Nate (Charlie Rowe), just about to enter college, is there.
Nate’s an athletic kid, and to impress his pals take a dive from a cliff into the nearby lake. The result is a terrifying medical emergency as he suffers a severe bacterial infection. Flown to a hospital in their hometown of Nashville and joined there by Dan—who’s delayed until a soldier gives him his plane reservation—the family watches in fear as the boy is diagnosed with meningitis, which might have killed him but leaves him a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. He’s so despondent over his condition that he becomes suicidal.
Hope comes when he receives a capuchin monkey called Gigi (Allie) to be his service animal. It takes the cute critter, which had been abused at a roadside zoo before being rescued and trained, time to get accustomed to the Gibson home, and some of the family (as well as their dog) are upset by its presence, but Gigi and Nate gradually build a close bond, and his spirits rise.
Matters change when Nate takes Gigi into a grocery store, where they’re accosted by Chloe Gaines (Welker White), an activist who believes that monkeys, intelligent creatures that they are, ought not to be pets, or used as service animals, the equivalent of slaves. Her ire is exacerbated when Nate and Gigi take an unauthorized trip to a college party at the invitation of Lori (Zoe Colletti), a student he’d previously met in North Carolina. Footage goes viral on the internet, and Gaines shows up at the Gibson home with a crowd demanding not only that Gigi be freed from servitude but that a decision be taken action to bar monkeys from being used as service animals in the state. Nate and Chloe both testify on the issue, with Gaines’s supporters in vocal support of her position.
The ruling proves a disappointment for the Gibsons, but Granny finds a loophole, and a coda set back in North Carolina finds the family whole and Nate even planning to go to college, with Gigi as his roomie.
So this is a film of parts. The first chapter, marked by a lot of dappled flashes of sunlight on the lens of Elliot Davis’ camera and then much mournful music by Paul Leonard-Morgan as Nate lies near death with his family looking on, is actually quite affecting, with Harden delivering her usual strong performance and Belushi surprisingly effective as her worried husband. The second turns more bright as Nate and Gigi connect and the monkey proves instrumental to his improvement both physically and mentally; the only drawbacks here are a plethora of musical montages and the need to juxtapose natural scenes of Allie with CGI ones for sequences that would have been too dangerous to shoot with the actual simian, like one in which the monkey’s chased by the Gibson dog.
But the final chapter, involving the legal battle over the use of capuchins as service animals in the state, is shrill. It paints the conflict in such strong contrasts in support of its obvious point of view that it becomes something very like a harangue, marked by a performance from White so strident that you’re practically invited to hiss at her character. Hamm’s touch, previously well calibrated in films like “The Journey,” also about strongly divergent viewpoints, fails him here.
Still, Rowe makes Nate so likable that you’re likely to root for him even when he makes bad decisions, and the real Allie is charming. Ladd is rather a caricature as the spunky old grandma, but it’s a role that fits her perfectly. This is a handsome film visually, with a nice production design by Danielle Aziz and Marcia Hinds, and you can’t blame editor Alex Rodriguez for the often ungainly transitions; they’re embedded in David Hudgins’ script. Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score makes rather obvious, emphatic choices.
By a strange circumstance this week has seen a spate of news reports about a man who keeps an alligator as his emotional support animal. There’s a difference between an ESA and a service animal, of course, but the heavy-handedness of this film, which might have been an ingratiating means of introducing audiences to the ethical issues surrounding them all, makes it more irritating than enlightening.