As a child, if you were considered “Gifted,” it probably meant there were concerned discussions about your education. Just a few months ago, we saw that one gifted girl’s parents made sure she got the necessary attention and she grew up to become part of the NASA team who put a man, John Glenn, in space. Katherine Johnson (neé Coleman) was a real person portrayed in the fanciful award-winning biopic “Hidden Figures.” This film is pure fiction and again, it is a girl who shows promise in math.
While Johnson’s parents, the Colemans, were a tidily dressed and conservatively groomed couple, the little moppet of this movie, Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), is under the care of her hunky uncle, Frank (Chris Evans). She’s on a first name basis with him and he hovers on the edge of slovenly respectability–his T-shirts and plaid shirts aren’t hole-ridden, but the clothes he wears are worn and even if clean, do not look clean. He’s grown a beard, not out of style, but more out of pure laziness.
As the movie begins, Frank has decided to send the seven-year-old Mary out to public school so she can have a “normal” childhood and “try being a kid.” His landlady and friend, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) warns him against it and her worst fears are soon realized.
When Mary enters Ms. Bonnie Stevenson’s (class, her body language says sullen and soon, when the class begins basic arithmetic lessons, her face says bored impatience. Stevenson tests her new pupil’s ability and discovers what Frank and Roberta already know: Mary is a math prodigy. She is gifted.
Thinking they are doing Frank and Mary a favor, the school offers her the opportunity to attend on scholarship the fictional Oaks Academy for Gifted Children. Frank politely, but brusquely turns the offer down. Ms. Stevenson’s concern reaches past the private and falls into the person as she and Frank become romantically involved.
Word about Mary’s math abilities travels to somewhere the freelancing boat repairman Frank has been avoiding: His mother Evelyn Adler (Lindsay Duncan).
Evelyn herself was a gifted mathematician in England, but she gave it up when she married an American. Raising her two children, she focused on her daughter, determined that her daughter Diane would solve one of the give great math problems: the Navier Stokes equations. When Diane got pregnant, Evelyn angrily cast her out, but when Diane committed suicide, her son Frank never filed for official custody of Mary. Suddenly Evelyn wants to meet her granddaughter.
With money, an empty house and unfulfilled ambitions, Evelyn aims to get custody of Mary for her second chance at immortality, as the grandmother of a great mathematician. In court, it is money and establishment versus love, guilt and gentile poverty and, importantly, a one-eyed cat named Fred. The script makes Evelyn an unnecessarily hissable villainess by using Fred as a plot point.
How do the gifted make their way in life? Do they become intellectual adults while still having the bodies of children? Do they become bored with other, more normal kids? Should they be segregated into special schools?
None of these questions have easy answers. Not all kids are gifted in all subjects. Eventually gifted kids become gifted adults and the majority of people in the world are not gifted.
The movie comes up with two solutions, the first of which is false. The second tries to straddle both the worlds of children and adults. A similar solution was found in “Captain Fantastic” but that one ignored the differing ranges of giftedness within individuals in the family. “Gifted” is a movie for families and even adults who might want to reflect on their past and possibly the future of their children.