“Gigi & Nate” begins with two leaps. The first is out of terror, when Gigi, a capuchin monkey at a sad-sack roadside petting zoo, tries to steer clear of her “caretaker.” The second is the sweet leap of boy-joy that 17-year-old Nate Gibson takes off a rocky ledge and into a pond. In this amiable, if unnecessarily manipulative, movie about the human-animal bond — as well as the different forms resilience can take — that fateful second leap will lead the young man and the monkey to each other.
Gigi is rescued by a woman who works for an organization that provides service animals to people with disabilities. Nate (played by British rising star Charlie Rowe) is initially not so fortunate. Shortly after that dive, as he and his family ready for a Fourth of July celebration at their vacation cabin, he begins to feel increasingly lousy. Working from a screenplay by TV scribe David Hudgins, director Nick Hamm takes his time with the slowly receding mystery of what’s ailing the spirited teen. He’s trying to be his usual charming self, even sweet-talking local girl Lori (Zoe Colletti) into a boat ride, but as the day progresses his head swims, then pounds. Then the chills and a seizure hit him.
As Nate’s terrified parents Dan and Claire, Marcia Gay Harden and Jim Belushi bring believable anxiety and tenacity to proceedings. With Dan struggling to return from a business trip, it’s Claire who roars into action, demanding her son be airlifted to their hometown of Nashville. When Harden puts one of those teeny blankets over her head in the hospital lobby and weeps, it’s a gesture both stunning and subtle in its parental truths. Numerous affecting details in this youth-focused film come via its older performers, including Diane Ladd as Nate’s tippling grandmother, Mama Blanche.
Nate leaves the hospital a quadriplegic, and the film is refreshingly wise in its glimpses of him navigating his disability in an accessibility-averse world. Even so, you don’t have to be an accountant to recognize that many of the devices and resources at the Gibsons’ disposal are out of reach for most parents who love their kids just as much as Claire and Dan, and the film is slow to acknowledge the economic impact of the accident. After a year in a wheelchair, cared for mostly by his mom and a home health aide, Nate find himself sliding into a depression. Gigi is the answer, though not everyone’s on board.
The eponymous pair seems evenly matched, though more nuanced time spent on their developing relationship would be welcome. Played by simian performer Allie, occasionally enhanced with CGI effects, Gigi’s expressive face is impish and empathetic in equal measure. Focused on accurately depicting the physical challenges Nate encounters after his accident, Rowe (looking not unlike Oscar Isaac’s little brother) tends to over-signal the character’s kinder, gentler emotions.
Although Gigi’s tentative at first, she and Nate develop a telling bond — one that comes under fire when strident animal rights activist Chloe (Welker White) challenges their relationship, first in a supermarket and then in the courtroom. What happens once the film vilifies the animal rights contingent, however, is an example of how movies can protect their heroes and create their scapegoats (pardon the expression) to the detriment of dramatic complexity.
When Chloe, looking grim-faced and rather superior, confronts Nate at a supermarket about Gigi — who has been leaping from shelf to shelf — we’re as outraged by her intrusion as Claire is. Later, when social media posts show Nate and Gigi at a party and rile the “Primates Aren’t Pets” hoard, we’re outraged again. To be fair, Nate never seems contrite about endangering Gigi. (Beer pong, really?) Instead, the activists are shown to be barbarians at the driveway gates of the Gibsons’ home. That nearly eradicates the power of an earlier, richer scene in which Nate’s younger sister Annabelle (Hannah Riley) lets him have it in ways that make clear that Nate’s accident altered his siblings’ trajectories, too.
How a story purporting to be about the human-animal bond makes this leap to black-and-white gestures is a wonder — and a blunder. While Gigi gets top billing in the title, the film suggests she really is, and always will be, second banana.
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