Fred Tate is a pale, sensitive boy with no friends at school and a teacher who doesn't understand him. What's more, his mother, Dede, is more of a kid than he is.

But Fred's not just a troubled youngster. He is a child prodigy. At age 2 he read the label on the bottom of a plate, instead of simply learning the word, "plate."

And now, at the ripe old age of 7, he is drawing intricate chalk Madonnas on the schoolyard blacktop, multiplying reams of numbers in his head, playing classical piano at competition level and reading one college-level book after another. He also has an ulcer because he worries so intensely about the world's troubles and sometimes wakes up after dreaming he's inside Van Gogh paintings.

Meanwhile, Dede is content to spit cherry pits out the window, dance with Fred around her unkempt apartment and listen to old standards on the record player.

So begins "Little Man Tate," which marks Jodie Foster's directing debut and in which she co-stars as Dede. The film is a remarkable first-time-behind-the-camera effort, guided with a sensitive hand by someone who's been in the movie business a long time. Foster literally grew up before our eyes as one of those rare child actors who managed a smooth transition to become an accomplished adult actor, winning an Oscar two years ago (for "The Accused") to prove it. And since she was something of a child prodigy herself, she brings a special understanding to the material.

Playing young Fred is newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd, perfectly cast as the quiet, sincere little boy who isn't just numbers smart. He also has a surprisingly mature level of understanding. His perceptive insights, calmly expressed with perfect innocence, often cut like a knife, which is, of course, the mark of truth.

Still, he's a child, and Dede, though she may be an uneducated, uncouth barroom waitress, knows her son. At one point Fred laments, "I just want someone to have lunch with." Dede understands and is trying to make up for it with love, despite the knowledge that her son still thirsts for something more.

How long can Fred sit in a schoolroom thinking about calculus when basic division is a struggle for the rest of the class?

It isn't long before the third major player in this drama comes along, cold-fish Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a former prodigy herself who now runs a school for child geniuses, writes books about them and each year holds a conference called "Odyssey of the Mind." Yet, she has never learned the social skills necessary to build or maintain friendships.

Jane can offer Fred what Dede cannot, the intellectual spur that will keep that side of him alive and stimulated. And though Dede fears Jane may turn her son into another kid freak show, she allows Fred to go for it. And when Fred goes to college, it is both poignant and hilarious.

Though the final moments are a bit less satisfying than everything that has gone before, and some of the humor at Jane's expense seems a bit cheap, "Little Man Tate" emerges as a thought-provoking, enchanting little fable that marks the debut of a director to watch for. It's also a strong treatise on the value of pure, unconditional love as a necessary part of childhood development.

The performances, by Foster, Wiest, Hann-Byrd and a supporting cast that includes singer Harry Connick Jr. as a college student who befriends Fred, George Plimpton as a pompous William F. Buckley takeoff named "Winston F. Buckner," P.J. Ochlan as a snotty teenage genius called the "Math Magician" and Josh Mostel as a weary physics professor, is superb.

Screenwriter Scott Frank also wrote "Dead Again," which was stylishly directed by Kenneth Branagh. Like that film, "Little Man Tate" is a delicate screenplay that could have been a disaster in the wrong hands. But Foster was the perfect choice to keep the material light, yet poignant; funny, yet never frivolous; and touching but, for the most part, unsentimental.

"Little Man Tate" is a joyous film experience and as such is highly recommended. It is rated PG for profanity, a couple of vulgar remarks and a very brief shot of Connick in bed with a woman.