Movies about prodigies generally focus on the extraordinary talents of the child, while the conflict revolves around protecting the child from someone who wants to exploit or destroy them. “Gifted” (currently in limited release, releasing nationally on April 21) starts with a different goal: protecting the prodigy from the social alienation that comes from their talent.
The film opens with a family scene. Seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) is grudgingly getting ready for her first day in public school, prodded by her uncle Frank (Chris Evans). The two live with their monocular cat Fred in a small rental home park. Mary and the landlord Roberta (Octavia Spencer) want her to be home-schooled, but Frank is insistent that she needs to have friends and a normal life.
At school, Mary quickly reveals her mathematics abilities. She mocks her teacher’s problem, 3 + 3, with “everybody knows that.” This leads the teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), to ask Mary a series of increasingly difficult questions, all of which Mary answers correctly.
When the school’s principal, Ms. Davis (Elizabeth Marvel), suggests that Frank transfer Mary to the local gifted school, so that Mary can be properly educated, Frank refuses. He insists he wants Mary to have a normal life, not be surrounded by other gifted children. This leads Ms. Davis to contact Mary’s grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who then attempts to gain custody of Mary.
The bulk of the movie focuses on this custody challenge, during which we learn about Mary’s parents, Frank’s background, and why Frank is so insistent on keeping Mary in a “normal” school. Given the care with which the film reveals these details, I’m restricting myself here primarily to plot details evident from the trailers.
Based on that trailer and the title, one misgiving that I had as a mathematics educator is that the film would send the wrong message about mathematical talent. One school of pedagogy is that mathematics skill is largely innate, something you’re born with: There are “gifted” people, and if you just can’t figure it out by the time you’re done with elementary school, you’re just “bad at math.”
Another school of thought, emerging from the researchers like Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler, is that mathematics is a skill, like literacy, that can be learned through careful study and dedication. This does not deny the existence of child prodigies, but takes the emphasis off them and strongly challenges the notion of isolating people at a young age based on early indicators of skill.
The film does largely rely on the idea that mathematics talent is innate, even genetic. Mary’s mathematics skills are deep and broad: She can do calculus, geometry, and algebra, and while she struggles early on with a fifth-grade multiplication problem, she fairly quickly notices errors in a calculus proof.
As a film about mathematics and education, the film falters, although not nearly as badly as other movie entries. The filmmaker’s sins in this regard can be forgiven for the service these do to the storytelling.
I was also concerned that the movie might communicate that there’s something freakish about being good at mathematics. However, that’s not the case: Frank’s interest in keeping Mary in regular settings is not because he wants to suppress her talents but because he doesn’t want her to grow up isolated from ordinary people.
Overall, the focus of the film is on the relationship between Frank and Mary, as well as the role of Frank’s mother Evelyn and Mary’s mother Diane in shaping how the uncle and niece came to be where they are. Following his sister’s death, Frank gives up a solid career to move away from Massachusetts to Florida, in order to remove Mary from Evelyn’s world.
The dynamic of the downtrodden father figure and the spunky child is not new. There are times that I was reminded of “Paper Moon” and “Kramer vs. Kramer,” both of which also feature a man finding himself taking on the role of sole caregiver and having to navigate those culturally strange waters.
However, “Gifted” shows the next step in the development of that narrative. Frank is entirely focused on what is best for his niece, even if it’s not what everyone else thinks is right. Chris Evans plays the role masterfully, with a solid mix of insecurity and confidence. When Mary assaults a bully who is several years older than her, for instance, he is simultaneously proud of her for standing up for another student and apologetic to the school administrators for her having broken the rules.
Frank shows a range of emotions: He cries. He gets angry. He apologizes to Mary. He takes time to have fun with his niece. He acknowledges that he’s not perfect, and he takes responsibility for his mistakes. At the same time, he ferociously protects his niece. He is an excellent model for the new manhood, a natural and evolved descendant of Dustin Hoffman’s Ted Kramer.
Mckenna Grace is a delight as well. If Mary is a mathematics prodigy, Mckenna is an acting prodigy, taking the stage with Chris Evans and Academy-Award Winner Octavia Spencer and matching them well. The character is given a wide range of nuanced emotions (sass, sorrow, anger, joy, and boredom), and Mckenna delivers them solidly and convincingly. For their part, Spencer, Slate, Marvel, and the rest of the supporting cast do their jobs well.
The script does not rush or flaunt its details. A criticism of modern movies is that they often insult their audiences through excessive exposition. That is not the case here. Details are often left unspoken; I marveled multiple times at the way in which the filmmaker uses simple eye movements to communicate, and silence is leveraged as dialogue. Diane Adler, appearing only in photographs, plays a significant role.
The first dialogue between Frank and Roberta feels excessively coy, but otherwise, this lack of direct exposition is realistically fluid. There is little cheese here: The script treats its audience with the same intelligent respect that it gives its characters.
The film does struggle with providing a fresh perspective to the predictable development of the custody battle. The court’s determination is more creative than usual, in part to set up the final confrontation between Frank and Evelyn.
But the reason for seeing this film is not its groundbreaking legal scenes.
One reason for seeing this film is the characterization of Frank’s character as a complex father figure, connecting with his daughter and putting her needs first. Another is the relationship between uncle and niece, struggling for normalcy in a world in which they’re expected to stand out.
I highly recommend this film.
Photo credit: IMDB