For a solid portion of its running time, Gigi & Nate at least delivers what it promises: a young man and his monkey—to be more specific, a young, newly quadriplegic man and his service monkey. When it’s just star Charlie Rowe, neither paralyzed nor American but convincing at playing both, interacting with Allie the monkey (and occasional digital doubles), we get a compelling portrait of how exactly these trainable capuchins interact with humans who can barely move. Or at least who pretend they can barely move; Rowe took care never to present as abled in front of Allie, to ensure she’d believe he needed help.
Surely Rowe isn’t so super-famous that director Nick Hamm couldn’t have found an actual disabled actor for the part, and for a movie that prides itself on hiring many extras with disabilities, that casting choice feels particularly questionable. That humongous issue aside, Rowe’s interactions with Allie remain considerably charming, and you’ll (probably) believe a man and monkey can be best friends.
Unfortunately, the movie takes a good 30 minutes to even mention the notion of a service animal. First, it travels to North Carolina, a detail reiterated by both a sign that reads “North Carolina,” as well as an onscreen title. Here, Nate (Rowe) makes animal noises atop a cliff. He pulls off an impressive flip as he dives off, coming up seemingly unharmed, but his hearing starts to go wonky almost immediately. Before long, meningitis starts sending him into seizures, and eventually paralysis.
David Hudgins’ script does a poor job of detailing the full ramifications of his condition. In one scene, he’s grunting and seemingly nonverbal; in the next, he’s smiling and talking normally. Later, he gains mobility in his arms, suggesting that his condition can improve. If that’s how meningitis actually works, that would be nice to know, because on screen it feels like a magical movie disease whose symptoms vacillate according to the needs of the plot.
With Gigi the monkey, Nate rebounds remarkably quickly from suicidal to affable—despite some poo-flinging. Yet it’s a convincing testimony to the substance of Gigi and Nate’s relationship that when he takes her to a party where she encounters a real risk of danger, it’s heart-sinking. Unfortunately, the final stretch of the movie becomes a riff on God’s Not Dead, though PETA, er, “AFAB,” becomes its cartoon courtroom villain instead of liberal academia. Nate and his family soon face off against lunkheaded animal rights activists, forcing them to defend themselves against accusations of cruelty, and of treating an intelligent primate as a slave. (Isn’t this how the apes rose to rule the planet?)
In actuality, the battle this film depicts is already lost. The ADA hasn’t accepted capuchin monkeys as service animals since 2010, and the organization that trained them shuttered last year. Gigi & Nate is loosely inspired by a true story, but one that technically no longer applies. There’s never any indication that we’re watching a period piece, however, even though it does feature a four-year jump in time. Meanwhile, if you’re questioning whether or not this wannabe inspirational story will end unhappily, you’re misjudging the kind of film this is.
While Rowe and Allie are clearly the stars here, they’re surrounded by some entertaining old hands. Marcia Gay Harden, as Nate’s mom, vividly exudes the quality of “long-suffering;” Jim Belushi, as his dad, gets in at least one standout sarcastic slow clap. Then there’s Diane Ladd, a vodka-swilling grandma she plays so convincingly you’d think she was drinking between takes as well. There’s only so much these seasoned character actors can do to save a movie like this, the kind where Rowe’s voice-over delivers chestnuts like “We thought we were rescuing her...” Ultimately, if you paid to see Gigi & Nate, you might be the one who needs the rescuing.