The story of friendship between Gigi the monkey and Nate the paralyzed young man is a good one. The movie grabs your attention right from the beginning. There is a contrast of the viewer’s senses with beautiful photography that should make one feel at peace, but there is also a feeling of dread because this happy scene isn’t going to last long.
Gigi and Nate begins on a Fourth of July weekend with Nate (Charlie Rowe) wanting to impress his friends by jumping off a ledge into the lake below. It’s a surprisingly chilling scene since you already know that this isn’t going to go well. But then it does. Nate comes up for air and everything is fine. (This is the kind of tension one experiences watching certain movies that I have a love/hate relation with. You get a sigh of relief, followed by another sense of dread.)
As the day goes on, Nate is starting to feel unwell eventually collapsing with a seizure. He is rushed to a local hospital, but the doctors there aren’t completely sure what is wrong. During this ordeal, Nate’s father, Dan (Jim Belushi) is out of town finishing up one of his many business trips. His mother, Claire (Marcia Gay Harden) demands that her son get air-lifted to a larger hospital. As it turns out, Nate’s stunt caused him to acquire amoebic meningitis and he might not make it. It’s touch and go. The whole ordeal is terrifying, and you really feel for this family that you have just met.
The movie fast-forwards a bit with Nate at home, but he is wheelchair-bound and mostly paralyzed. His “room” is more like a mother-in-law apartment in size with large glass windows, a hospital bed, and a special contraption that lifts him out of bed and takes him to a specialized shower. And you begin to wonder, who much money does this family have to afford all of this?
Between his family and the hired help, Nate is getting the best care available, but he is miserable. Mom to the rescue! Although the family has talked about getting Nate a service animal to care for him, they didn’t take Claire seriously. And then, she and Nate bring home Gigi, a former mistreated capuchin monkey now fully trained. Neither Dan, Nate’s older sister Katy (Josephine Langford) or the family dog are thrilled, but grandma Blanche (Diane Ladd) and younger sister Annabelle (Hannah Riley) are all for it.
It takes a while for Gigi to get comfortable with her new home and Nate for that matter, but once she does, the pair are friends for life. That is before animal activist Chloe Gaines (Welker White) gets word of the new local resident and goes out of her way to put Gigi in an animal sanctuary for the monkey’s well-being. In her view, monkeys should not be treated as slaves to humans.
Gigi and Nate is a good movie that starts out strong pulling on the heartstrings. Like a ping pong ball, your mind races back and forth wondering what it must be like to live like Nate or how hard it must be to be the parents of Nate. Rowe does an incredible and convincing job. As he struggles through his physical therapy, you feel his pain right along with him.
Harden makes the most out of her role as a worried and then grief-stricken mother. The sobs she cries while in the hospital are truly heartbreaking. All Dan can do is stand by holding her. Unfortunately, Claire and Nate are the only characters who really get to emote much emotion. In fact, this movie is more of a mother-and-son tale. Dan is mostly absent. It is his absence that sets Claire off and the two have a scene-chewing fight over how much time Claire devotes to their son and how Dan manages to avoids the situation.
As for Gigi (whose name is Allie in real life), it would appear that she’s a marvelous little actress. However, she’s not really acting. She is actually a trained monkey for just purposes. Director Nick Hamm asked Charlie Rowe to stay seated in the wheelchair whenever Allie was on the set so that it wouldn’t confuse her. She actually shares a few scenes with a CGI version of her, but the photography is so seamless, you can’t even tell and the illusion is not broken. Allie and Rowe make a nice pair, but Allie almost steals the show.
Gigi and Nate is at its best when it focuses on the family and their small town. Going through a crisis like this would be devastating for any family, but the film makes a classic Hollywood mistake of portraying Nate’s family as being quite affluent. Their home and summer cabin are huge and beautiful. As a dad myself, I couldn’t help thinking about how we would have been wiped out financially if we experienced a similar situation and therefore, I found myself not completely relating to this family.
While I liked this movie a lot, I wished Hamm would have explored the families’ dynamics better. There is some mention on how Dan feels about his son’s condition, but it is never really shown. There are virtually no father-and-son scenes. There is one extended scene between Nate and his older sister Katy which is nice, but she’s not in most of the movie and so it feels a bit forced. Diane Ladd is a wonderful actress, but her role is reduced down to uttering silly little quips here and there when she could be comforting her daughter or grandson with words of wisdom.
Instead, this movie chooses to focus on a possible romance between Nate and Lori (Zoe Colletti), a girl he meets at the start of the movie. Their interaction with each other is cute, but that storyline is also undeveloped. For a film that captures real emotions well at the beginning, this lack of connection with those characters is somewhat disappointing.
Some will criticize Hamm’s decision to focus so much attention on the animal rights aspect, but I didn’t mind it as it added another layer of drama to the story. However, I was disappointed to find that the movie doesn’t give any information about the real Gigi and Nate just before the credits roll. It takes a little bit away from an otherwise good movie.
You can purchase tickets to see Gigi and Nate here.
(Main image: Charlie Rowe and “Gigi.” Roadside Attractions)
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.