Monkey is man’s best friend in Nick Hamm’s latest directing effort, Gigi & Nate. The titular characters of this feel-good drama are pretty different from Hamm’s normal gritty fare (Killing Bono, White Lines), instead focusing on a paralyzed young man and his service monkey. With lead Charlie Rowe and a supporting role for the always great Marcia Gay Harden, Gigi & Nate should have all the trappings of a crowd-pleasing inspirational drama.
Rowe plays Nate, a normal confident 18 year old who becomes paralyzed after swimming in a lake. Despite his parents’ (Harden and Jim Belushi) help and presence, Nate is devastatingly depressed and borderline suicidal. This changes when Gigi, a capuchin monkey and trained service animal, moves in to help Nate out. From there, we see his life begin – from flirting with a local girl to gaining more mobility.
Gigi & Nate is formulaic but grounded. There are no crazy monkey antics that you would have seen in a 90s movie like Duston Checks In. Instead, you can tell Hamm and the crew worked to try to portray this service animal as realistically as possible. We spend a good amount of time at the service animal center and with a physical therapist who works with Gigi to meet Nate’s needs. Rowe lays down the emotional groundwork as a kid coming to terms with his disability while Harden plays the supportive, overworked mother. Both the believability of the acting and portrayal of service animals set the film to be a tear-jerking crowd pleaser, but the overstuffed and disconnected plot gets in the way
Each act of Nick Hamm’s script seems to serve a specific purpose. The first establishes Nate’s disability needs and his backstory. The second shows Gigi’s translation into the family and how she improves Nate’s life. The third and final act devolves into a PSA for service animals and how vegan and animal life activists derail their mission. It feels preachy, needlessly political and comes out of nowhere. The film becomes less about Nate and his family and more about a moral, which is where it loses its point.
Gigi & Nate feels less like one cohesive story, and rather like three separate ones. I could see this working better for television, each episode keeping the grounded young adult drama vibe but covering more nuance than the film can provide in its 110-minute runtime.