Gigi & Nate

The ads for Gigi & Nate proclaim it to be inspired by a true story, yet the film ends with one of those disclaimers saying the characters and events are fictitious. It also lacks the requisite “pictures of the real people” at the end. My guess is that director Nick Hamm and writer David Hudgins were simply inspired by a variety of stories related to service animals and made up their own story about them. That approach works for a while, until the plot paints itself into a corner.

Nate Gibson (Charlie Rowe) has been diagnosed with meningitis that he apparently got from jumping off cliffs into lakes. (A doctor explains that this activity can cause bacteria to forcefully go up one's nose and infect membranes inside the head.) He first gets very sick, then becomes a paraplegic. Life confined to a wheelchair takes a toll on his emotions, leading to profound depression. Mom Claire (Marcia Gay Harden) quits her job to care for Nate. Father Dan (Jim Belushi) is always traveling and only ever seems to be home when something bad happens.

Eventually, Nate agrees to get a service animal. That's Gigi, a capuchin monkey. The film has very good scenes showing the process of him obtaining the animal. He then has to allow Gigi to get acclimated to him, and to her new home. Peanut butter helps. Over time, her assistance lifts his spirits, providing increased motivation to do the physical therapy that will partially improve his condition.

The first hour of Gigi & Nate sets up the idea that we're going to see an uplifting movie about the bond between a human and the animal trained to aid him. It's very entertaining, if admittedly a little on the familiar side. (Hey, look, a feces-throwing joke!) Then Nate goes into a grocery store, where Gigi pulls items off the shelf for him. A woman complains that he's not allowed to have a monkey in a supermarket – not even a service monkey. This woman turns out to be Chloe Gaines (Welker White), an animal rights activist, and she makes it her life's mission to take Gigi away from Nate.

That's a big error. Suddenly, the film goes in a completely different, way more melodramatic direction involving police action, violent protests, and testimony before the state House of Representatives. The awkward transition in Hour 2 – which gets away from the stuff that's touching – is made worse by its thin treatment of the subject. To work, Gigi & Nate needed to take Chloe's position as seriously as it takes the Gibsons'. Is it cruel to make wild animals live in domesticity to work for humans? Possibly. Are capuchins unpredictable and potentially dangerous? Sure. The film presents those ideas only at a surface level, making Chloe a one-dimensional, empathy-free villain.

Why does Gigi & Nate go down this road? I think it's because there's not much story to tell at a certain point. Nate's optimism improves when his helper arrives. Where do you go from there? The point is clearly made that he will never fully recover, so the advancements he makes are going to be limited. With little possibility for drama, the movie has to invent stuff like Chloe's war or marital difficulties between Claire and Dan. The more the picture gets into these areas, the sillier it becomes.

I liked the first half of Gigi & Nate a lot. The second half is extremely contrived, though. Rowe, Harden, and the monkey are appealing. They needed a plot with clearer direction on how to get meaning from the concept of a service animal making a sick human's life better.

out of four

Gigi & Nate is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.