It tells the story of a seven-year-old child prodigy, Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd), who struggles to self-actualize in a social and psychological construct that largely fails to accommodate his intelligence. Foster plays Fred's mother Dede Tate, who attempts to give her son a "normal" childhood while feeding his intellectual curiosity.
Dede Tate (Jodie Foster) is a single mother, a working-class woman of average intelligence raising her seven-year-old son, Fred (Adam Hann-Byrd), who shows every indication of being a genius. Fred's reading and mathematics abilities are remarkable, and he plays the piano "at competition level," but his intellect isolates him from his public school classmates.
Fred's intellect comes to the attention of Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a former music prodigy and now a psychologist running a school for gifted children. She seeks permission from Dede to admit Fred to the school in order to develop his intellectual gifts in a way that a public school cannot. Dede is reluctant, preferring that Fred have a normal upbringing but when no one comes to Fred's seventh birthday party, Dede consents.
Fred fits in better at the institute, and he meets one of his heroes who is one of Jane's prized pupils, the brilliant but slightly bizarre "Mathemagician" Damon Wells (P.J. Ochlan), a whiz at math who wears a black cape wherever he goes. After unintentionally upstaging Damon at a competition for gifted youth, Fred is enrolled at a university where he studies quantum physics while his mother, aunt and cousins travel to Florida for the summer. Damon is an unruly child at first, but warms up to Fred when out horseback riding, and is Fred's first insight to a world outside academia when Damon tells him, "it is not how much IQ a man has; it is how he uses it". Jane attempts to become more nurturing, but is unable to relate to Fred as anything other than a case study. An adult student named Eddie (Harry Connick Jr.) accidentally hits Fred with a globe when goofing around. To make it up to Fred, Eddie takes Fred out for a ride on his moped and shows him events like shooting pool, which improves Fred's personality spending time with someone who is not a genius. However, when Fred by mistake comes to Eddie's room when he is in bed with a coed, Fred runs out. Eddie chases after him, then says he cannot be a babysitter to Fred; while he enjoys Fred's company, he says that Fred needs to find friends closer to his age. The return to isolation takes a toll on Fred, as he suffers from nightmares where he is viewed as a freak.
Jane is asked to bring Fred onto a panel discussion show on the topic of gifted children, but Fred breaks down. He claims his mother is dead, and recites a childish poem (a word for word repetition of a poem by one of his former grade school classmates) before taking off his microphone and walking out of the studio. Dede witnesses some of this as it is broadcast and flies back to New York. Jane is unable to find Fred, but Dede discovers him back at their apartment and embraces him.
One year later, Fred has adjusted to the pressures of being a child genius, particularly after an even younger student is admitted to Jane's school. Dede hosts a well attended birthday party for him, reconciling Fred's emotional development with his intellect.Jodie Foster - Dede Tate
Dianne Wiest - Jane Grierson
Adam Hann-Byrd - Fred Tate
Harry Connick Jr. - Eddie
David Hyde Pierce - Garth Emmerick
Debi Mazar - Gina
P.J. Ochlan - Damon Wells
Alex Lee - Fred Tate at two
Michael Shulman - Matt Montini
Nathan Lee - Matt's Teammate
Celia Weston - Miss Nimvel
Danitra Vance - Clinic Doctor
Richard Fredette - Bartender
George Plimpton - Winston F. Buckner
Elizabeth H. Frietsch - Live Wire Girl
Jennifer Trier - Grierson Institute Teacher
Lawrence Gallegos - Fraternity Guy
D. Michael Pierce - College Student
Evan Prizant - Child Star (The Adding Machine)
Geoffrey C. York - Infant Fred Tate
Carolyn Lawrence - Sorority Girl
Most of the film was shot in Over-the-Rhine and downtown Cincinnati. Other locations include the Cincinnati suburb of Clifton; the Village of Indian Hill; the University of Cincinnati's McMicken Hall; Miami University's Upham Hall and the Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity House, in Oxford, Ohio; and the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Little Man Tate received positive reviews from critics, as it holds a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 25 reviews.
The film grossed about $25 million.