Rating: 4 out of 5.

As an avid lover of animals, Gigi & Nate spoke to me on a spiritual level just from the trailer alone. Directed by Nick Hamm (2001’s Hole, Godsend)—whom one would not immediately associate with a drama of this caliber—the film is the latest in a long line of inspirational friendship stories inspired by reality. What makes this movie feel so special is, of course, the tender bond between paraplegic Nate (Charlie Rowe, Rocketman, Red Band Society) and his lovable service animal Gigi, but beyond that, the devotion to subtle moments and tenderness won me over. There are no silly 90s style hijinks, or irritating side stories that go nowhere. Gigi & Nate gets straight to the point—though it runs nearly two hours, the script from David Hudgins emphasizes character development above all else.

In the opening scene, we follow Gigi as she is retrieved from a seemingly awful petting zoo in California. A female handler fetches the nervous animal, and then we don’t see Gigi again for nearly thirty minutes. Instead, Nate’s story shifts into focus. He jumps down off a cliff into a massive waterfall, which seems to get a strange (bordering on scary) amount of emphasis. He rents a boat out on the lake, annoys his sister into submission, invites a local girl to go out for tubing and beer, and even makes it back in time for his mom’s big 4th of July party at their North Carolina cabin. Throughout the day, Nate’s ears and head seem to bother him, but he thinks nothing of it. In grand dramatic fashion, as a storm rolls in and his father’s plane is delayed, the pressure from his head causes Nate to practically pass out. His family rushes him to the emergency room, where he is immediately admitted due to swelling on his brain.

After being airlifted to another hospital at the request of his concerned mom, Claire (Marcia Gay Harden, The Mist, Into the Wild), while his father (Jim Belushi, K-9, Little Shop of Horrors) rushes home, Nate’s prognosis is not looking good. Warned of an 80% mortality rate, Nate does indeed make it out of this ordeal alive, but at great mental and personal cost. He tries to commit suicide, and for four grueling years, he attempts to recover his mind while faced with being a paraplegic. Enter: Gigi. Concerned Claire is committed to getting a service animal for Nate, so she takes him to Cebus, a sort of sanctuary. Though she now has years of training under her belt, Nate will be Gigi’s “first placement.” Despite this caveat, Nate unsurprisingly shares an instant connection with Gigi. He smiles for the first time in forever, and this alone makes it worth it for Claire.

Through the course of the movie, Gigi slowly but surely begins to adjust to Nate’s home. A capuchin monkey, Gigi is taken straight to Nate’s room, where she manages to imprint on her surroundings but takes an awfully long time to leave her cage. As Nate’s aide washes and dresses him, Gigi does not come out for weeks until she finally comforts Nate in pain during his physical therapy. Just like that, Gigi becomes a major part of Nate’s recovery process. Nate soon starts an Instagram with the hilarious handle of TheMonkeyGuy. Director Nick Hamm frames every moment of Nate and Gigi’s interactions with a tremendous affinity and love for the monkey—the smallest touch from Gigi’s little hands nearly brought a tear to my eye.

A surprising conflict does come to light when Nate begins taking Gigi around more with him, including at a grocery store, and again at a college party. In this way, the script makes some surprising stances on the treatment of service animals. One is still ultimately left to have their own takeaways about seeing animals in this light, but I know for sure that I wanted Gigi to stay by Nate’s side every second once they have that initial bond established. Gigi & Nate is not perfect—the passage of time can definitely be lightly described as wonky, and the courtroom drama is too slight to leave much of an impression. However, that connection between Nate and Gigi is undeniable. The supporting cast do a great job, but this is Charlie Rowe’s movie, and he fills the role of Nate with a vulnerable charm that seems to be begging for a warm hug. Gigi & Nate is a note-perfect drama about the heartwarming love between a service animal and their owner, proving forevermore that creature comforts can act as a cooling balm for anxiety and depression. 

Gigi & Nate swings into theaters on Friday, September 2nd.

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