Jodie Foster Lurches About

The media, understandably, has taken a great rooting interest in Jodie Foster's debut as a director. A smart, no-nonsense woman and a superbly honest actress, Foster makes an exemplary celebrity. Little Man Tate, about the difficult progress of a 7-year-old child genius, lends itself to an autobiographical reading as a metaphor for Foster's own precocious acting career. While all this makes for good copy, the movie itself is a sweet, disjointed, overly schematic affair that only scratches the surface of its fascinating subject.

Scott Frank's screenplay positions its lonely, brilliant worrywart hero (Adam Hann-Byrd) at the center of an emotional tug of war between two women. His working-class mother, Dede (Foster), a waitress, is there for him emotionally but can't nurture his intellectual gifts, which range awesomely from physics and math to music and art. Child psychologist Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a former prodigy herself, wants to pull him away from his mother and open new intellectual worlds to him. She represents Mind divorced from Instinct, illustrated in characteristically broad strokes by a silly scene in which she haplessly burns a meatloaf to a crisp.

Despite quirky, fresh moments and a watchful, touching performance from Hann-Byrd, the movie lurches unsteadily from scene to scene, punctuated by odd bursts of irrelevant melodrama and culminating in a happy ending that is frankly baffling. Apparently the boy's mind/heart dilemma has been resolved. How? When? Why? Foster has neglected to show it.