‘Gifted’ Movie Shows That Academic Prodigies Need to Be Kids, Too

By Mark Walsh — April 12, 2017 2 min read
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Imagine that your 7-year-old could multiply 57 X 135 in her head, and tell her elementary school teacher the correct answer was 7,695. And then volunteer that the square root of that sum was 87.7 “and change.”

Would that be enough to accept an offer to enroll her in a private school for gifted children? And with a scholarship, no less?

Many parents would say yes. But in “Gifted,” a drama opening nationwide on Wednesday after starting in select cities last week, Frank (Chris Evans), the uncle and guardian of that 7-year-old, Mary (Mckenna Grace), has some good reasons not to go along.

For one thing, Mary’s mother was a mathematics genius who committed suicide when the girl was a toddler. That’s why Frank has given up his job teaching philosophy at Boston University to move to the Tampa area to become the caregiver for Mary.

It’s never really explained why Frank has become a boat mechanic, other than that allows him to work in marinas that provide a nice backdrop for the film. And perhaps college-level teaching positions in philosophy in the Tampa, Fla., area are few and far between. This also ensures that Frank and Mary live in a ramshackle rental development, where Roberta (Octavia Spencer) is the landlady and a caring surrogate aunt for the child.

Frank has been home schooling Mary in the couple of years he has been her guardian. Like her mother, Mary has a knack for mathematics, and she studies calculus and other advance topics. But Frank has decided that Mary needs to go to the local public school. He promised Mary’s mother (his sister) that if he had to care for Mary he would do what he could to ensure her a normal childhood.

Mary’s gifts and precociousness get her in trouble in her first few days at the school. But her teachers and principal quickly realize she is gifted. That’s when they propose to Frank that he send her to the Oaks Academy for Gifted Education. The principal suggests a scholarship would be no big problem to secure.

The story soon shifts away from the school, except for Frank’s romantic involvement with Mary’s teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate). Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), arrives from Boston to ply Mary with a new Apple computer. She soon is trying to wrest custody of the girl from Frank, and the movie, directed by Marc Webb ("(500) Days of Summer”), turns into a version of the 1979 divorce drama “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Duncan is meant to be the villain, but she does wish to expose Mary to intellectual challenges befitting her gifts. (The grandmother herself was a math scholar who attended Cambridge University in England before settling in the United States with the budding American scholar she married. This grandfather, though, is out of the picture having taken up ranching in the West.)

Mary wants to stay in Florida, where she is perfectly happy with her one-eyed cat and Frank. Several courtroom scenes ensue, underhanded deeds are committed, and several complex mathematical formulas figure into the plot. (Mary, who is convincingly gifted and sharp as played by Grace, even goes equation to equation with an MIT math professor in one scene.)

Without giving away the end, the film seems to agree with Frank’s instincts that young people with extraordinary academic gifts need to be able to act like normal kids, too.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.