In warmhearted ‘Gigi & Nate,’ a monkey helps a paralyzed man — and concerns others
The seemingly tame drama suddenly takes on extra weight as a statement about animal rights.
We all love those viral videos showing service dogs providing aid and comfort to military veterans, the disabled and thousands of others who benefit from the support provided by these specially trained canines. And we marvel and sometimes shake our heads at features about “unconventional” service animals, from kangaroos to pot-bellied pigs to bearded dragons to hedgehogs and I kid you not there was a story just this week about an alligator named Wally who provides emotional support to a Pennsylvania man.
What about those animals, though? Is it fair to them to turn them into support creatures for humans? We’re about halfway through the warmhearted and inspirational and seemingly non-controversial coming-of-age drama “Gigi & Nate” when we’re suddenly confronted with those questions. This is one of the more sudden and unexpected turns in any movie I’ve seen this year, and while it’s not likely to change anyone’s mind on a hot-button subject, it adds intellectual and emotional heft to a story that had seemed to reach its natural conclusion after about an hour.
Back in the day, “Gigi & Nate” would have been a prime-time network “Movie of the Week” or an “ABC Afterschool Special,” in that it has a pleasant but not particularly striking look; endearing performances from a familiar cast of esteemed veterans and earnest newcomers, and a storyline designed to provide a few initial chuckles, some light romance, a devastating family setback and finally, a happy ending. (At least most of the time.)
Roadside Attractions presents a film directed by Nick Hamm and written by David Hudgins. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic material and language). Running time: 114 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.
Inspired by a true story and directed by Nick Hamm from a solid script by David Hudgins (whose resume on TV series such as “Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood” and “Everwood” makes him a perfect fit for this material), “Gigi & Nate” introduces us to the Gibsons, an All-American family celebrating Fourth of July at their family vacation home in North Carolina. Teenage son Nate (Charlie Rowe), who is handsome and bright and charmingly cocky and will be heading off to college at the end of summer, dives off a steep cliff and plunges deep into the water below. Nate seems fine until he starts feeling dizzy at the family dinner, and a while later, Nate’s older sister Katy (Josephine Langford) finds him on the bathroom floor, experiencing terrifying spasms. That deep dive gave Nate meningitis, which could be fatal.
After a harrowing sequence in which Nate’s mother Claire (Marcia Gay Harden) goes full Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment” on hospital staffers while Nate’s dad Dan (Jim Belushi) desperately tries to find a way home from a business trip, we learn Nate will be paralyzed for life. We cut to some four years later, with Nate battling depression while he goes through a daily routine with little focus or purpose — but things change for the better when Nate is paired with a capuchin monkey named Gigi who has been trained for years to be a service animal. (In the film’s opening sequence, we learn Gigi has been rescued from an abusive situation in a rundown “petting zoo.”)
Cue the obligatory service animal sequences in which Gigi spars with the family dog, is slow to trust all these humans, runs wild through the house and destroys plants — and eventually bonds with Nate, to the point where they become viral sensations. All is well! End of story!
Not so fast. An Instagram video of Nate getting drunk with Gigi on his lap while dozens of drunken college students party all around them draws the attention of a humorless, fiercely dedicated and litigious animal rights activist named Chloe (Welker White), who marshals an army of protestors to harass the Gibsons at their home and takes them to court, arguing that it’s cruel to enslave such a highly intelligent creature. As presented in “Gigi & Nate,” it’s a stacked argument — the stone-faced, shrill “Karen” and her heartless minions trying to separate the disabled young man in the wheelchair from his best friend — but it does give pause for thought. (The screenplay finds a rather convenient solution to the dilemma, and we’ll leave it at that.)
I didn’t expect “Gigi & Nate” to be the kind of film that would have me Googling this subject after the fact and reading such thought-provoking articles as “Is it Cruel to Have a Monkey Helper?” by Barbara J. King, which appeared in the Atlantic a few years ago, but there you have it.
At the end of the sun-dappled days of “Gigi & Nate,” we can’t help but root for Nate and his monkey best friend. Charlie Rowe is a likable presence in the lead; Josephine Langford and Hannah Riley are terrific as Nate’s loving sisters; Zoe Colletti is a charmer as Nate’s potential love interest; Marcia Gay Harden and Jim Belushi are reliable hands as Nate’s parents — and we even get the great Diane Ladd as the Wisecracking Grandma, who is always saying things like, “Does that monkey know [where your mother] hides the vodka?” Nate has been dealt a terrible hand, but he has a hell of a support system, from monkey to grandmother and everything in between.