3 Stars — Thought-Provoking

The exceptional child is a challenge for any family. Whatever the cause of their child’s unique needs, parents often feel ill-equipped to care for them.

This is true of society as a whole and educational systems in particular. But when the person caring for the child is an uncle unexpectedly given that responsibility and the unique need is a gifted mathematical genius, the complexity multiplies.

That is the situation in Marc Webb’s new film, Gifted.

Written by Tom Flynn, his tale focuses on a spirited first-grader named Mary Adler (McKenna Grace). The daughter of a genius who took her own life soon after Mary’s birth, Mary has been in the care of her uncle, Frank Adler (Chris Evans), for seven years.

Having homeschooled her those first seven years, he is now convinced that Mary needs to spend time with children her own age in order to have not only friends but a normal childhood. Unconvinced that taking her to a public school will be safe or good for her is next-door neighbor Roberta Taylor (Octavia Spencer). And, as Roberta feared, it did not go well. Children who are different are often feared or controlled in ways that other children do not experience.

In this instance it is her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), who within minutes of having her in the classroom recognizes she is not her usual student.

We won’t go into all the dynamics of this or spoil this intriguing plot, but there is another person who plays a major part in the tale and that is Mary’s grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan).

As a brilliant mathematician herself, who gave up her Cambridge life to come to the United States and raise children, it is clear that Evelyn lived her ambition through her deceased daughter and now wants to live through her granddaughter. It is the difference of opinion between Frank and Evelyn in how to raise a gifted child that is the tension in the tale.

Each takes a position that can be supported logically. Evelyn, as she had with her own daughter and which arguably led to her depression and suicide, thinks Mary should live a life of singular focus in order to solve one of the great Seven Millennium Problems.

Forcing her own daughter to give up her childhood and teen experiences of friendship and boyfriends, Evelyn is convinced that Mary’s unique abilities also warrant this sacrifice. Frank disagrees and explains that Mary’s mother wanted her to live a normal life with all the usual childhood and relationship experiences.

This question is one that every parent of an exceptional child must decide: Does my child need a unique upbringing or does that exception to the usual create isolation and an incomplete life?

This film is a helpful tale in exploring the answer to such questions, not only for parents but for all of us, whether we are educators or next-door neighbors.


» After viewing the inadequacies of both Frank and Evelyn, we can understand how the government educators would feel right in taking Mary away for a unique education. But would that be right? Would it be moral? What is the most valuable life to be lived and how do we decide that for a child?

» As Christians there is an interesting scene inserted into the film in which Mary is asking Frank about God. Do you think people with intelligence have more or less ability to recognize the nature of Faith?

» While it is easy to identify the stifled ambition of the grandmother, how do you understand the decision of Frank to give up his life as a teacher to move to Florida and repair boats? Was this out of guilt that he wasn’t there for his sister or his awareness that he needed to get Mary away from her grandmother?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.