Gifted does for gifted what Love Story did for Harvard: everyone will want to go there.
It is the best onscreen fictional treatment of gifted ever. In history. In the universe.
It is a must-see for anyone who cares about gifted kids, doesn’t really understand giftedness, is parenting a gifted child, is educating a gifted child, was a gifted child…is that everyone?
I had the opportunity to pre-screen the movie (thanks, Fox Searchlight), and when we left the theater, my husband, knowing how defensive I am about gifted kids, asked, “Well?”
“It’s the best thing ever done,” I said. And I’m still saying it.
In addition to the pre-screen, I also enjoyed interviewing the producer, Karen Lunder, who belongs in the Giftedness Hall of Fame.
I’m sharing seven reasons you should see this movie. Right away.
They nailed gifted.
All too often, we get stereotyped, overly simplified treatments of giftedness in movies. Not here. Not only do they capture many of the key attributes common to gifted chilren, but they also get gifted adults correct as well. Here’s what you’ll see:
lack of respect of positional authority (Can I get an amen?)
passion for the underdog
the cognitive stuff, of course
early moral concern
advanced sense of humor
real relationships with much older people
When I asked Karen about it (May I call you Karen? Yes? Thank you.), she said that a couple of people with tons of expertise have said that, and it was very rewarding to her to hear it. She credits director Mark Webb, a “thoughtful, emotional, intellectual person who had a desire to tell this character-driven story with complexity and realism while still sending you into a movie.”
The girl, Mary, played by McKenna Grace, is amazing in the role. I felt like she was an amalgam of every gifted child I’ve ever met.
“Choosing the right Mary was key,” Karen said. “Some of why the movie rings true is just McKenna – just her personality.”
Nothing I have ever read or seen has captured it as well as this movie does.
2. The teacher. The teacher. The teacher.
I asked Karen, this question: “One of the strengths of the movie to me is the dynamic advocate her teacher is, and the shift she makes as she sees the strengths of this little girl. I hadn’t seen that done as well since Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Can you tell me more about that aspect of the movie?”
Karen said that the relationship “was baked into the story, but we saw it evolve as Bonnie was cast. As Mark would work with various Bonnies, as they moved through it, the character really started to evolve – there was this great sense of excitement and discovery. Jenny [Slate] had such a specific take on the character. The teacher’s character was always intended to be smart, and Jenny just had a very intuitive relationship to how she read the character.”
The character of Bonnie the teacher could so easily have been the thing that made the movie ring hollow, but Jenny Slate is perfect. She shows how educators can set aside their views of what kids “should” be able to do at certain ages and then advocate for what they can do.
Jenny Slate, I’m giving you an honorary gifted educator degree. Also, your wardrobe in the movie was the bomb. That may be shallow, but hey, gifted doesn’t mean you can’t like cute clothes.
3. The girl is gifted in math.
I share a keynote speech in which I tell the [unbelieveable but true] story of the president of Harvard saying that women are biologically inferior in math and science. I should clarify: he’s the former president of Harvard.
I’m primarily a language arts/social studies person myself, but making the character a girl who is gifted in math is an important gender/content barrier to break.
When I asked Karen about it, she said the inspiration for this came from an “amalgamation of people in the screenwriter’s life, including his sister and his niece who was a whippersnapper. And the director is from a family of mathematicians.”
What I love is that they don’t make a big deal about it. It is just accepted that this girl (and her mother and grandmother) are all gifted in math. The uncle is a philosopher. So there.
Karen added, “Part of why I cried everytime I read the script was that I cared so much for this girl. She’s extraordinary in a way we don’t normally see. It’s never mentioned that she’s a girl. It’s never mentioned about her mother. It just is.”
4. They don’t make her a superhero.
My only issue with War Games was that they take this kid and make him save the entire world. In this movie, she’s a kid with a gift she’s turning into a talent. The kid part comes through loud and clear.
How did they get that part so right? How did they balance what a child that age could do with what a child with that gift is like?
Karen told me that they’d had lunch with the faculty at a school for the gifted and asked questions, “really getting into the social dynamics. We met with gifted kids. We spoke with people who’d been there to ask, ‘What would a seven-year-old math prodigy be studying? What would she be capable of?’ I became personally obsessed with this. I spoke with math prodigies at UCLA, at the University of Wisconsin, at MIT, and more.”
She spoke with grown-up prodigies to ask what their childhoods had been like.
And this research pays off because the story reads true. For those of us who work with gifted children and have been gifted children, this story rings as true as the bell on Santa’s sleigh in The Polar Express.
5. They let her be a child.
When Mary is forced to do nothing but work on her gift, she becomes miserable. It’s clear that she is a child first and gifted second. Gifted is an adjective, not a noun.
There is a strong message that gifted individuals are still people with “normal” needs for friendship, experiences, and fun. Parents and teachers: I hope you’re watching.
6. The gifted child is someone you’d like to know.
This is in stark contrast to the way giftedness is often portrayed in media. I’m calling you out, Time magazine. Every cover they have with gifted kids looks like a Kafka-esque dystopic nightmare.
In Gifted, the character is likeable. Yes, she’s quirky. Yes, sarcasm is just another service she offers. Yes, she’s smarter than the average bear.
Yet she’s also fun, sweet, caring, and adorable.
She is not a caricature. She is not a one-dimensional gifted doll. She is not sacrificed on the altar of giftedness.
She is a child, and giftedness is just one part of who she is. Her personality is not subsumed in it.
7. The story itself is strong.
It’s an interesting story of family dynamics as well. This isn’t a “let’s shove this idea of giftedness in your face for 141 minutes and let you chew slowly.”
There’s a lot to discuss in the movie, giftedness aside. Teens who see it can have great conversations with parents about:
Who should decide what’s best for kids?
What is so serious it’s worth dividing a family?
What makes a family?
What is the price people pay for secrets?
What is worth sacrificing for?
How can you tell who loves you for you?
Why do some people struggle to show their emotions?
Can you always keep your promises?
Can you do wrong things with the best of intentions? If so, which counts more?
What makes a happy ending?
The character of the uncle, well played by Chris Evans, is satisfyingly complex. I like that. It would have been very easy to have him be just a pretty face. In the same way that Mary is more than gifted, Frank is, too.
He’s a gifted adult, and the story brushes up against the question of, “If you’re smart, do you always have to do ‘smart’ things for your job?” He’s got a lot of the characteristics we see in gifted kids who, by the way, grow up dragging all of that gifted baggage with them to adulthood.
My only disappointment with the movie is that it could so easily have been appropriate for even young kids, and it’s not.
At the risk of offending her, I called Karen on it (maybe I should call her Ms. Lunder here).
She said it was always intended as a movie for grown-ups, and that “as it turned out, it has evolved to have a pretty great reach appropriate for older kids. I think that it’s hard because it’s a story about a family, about letting go of things. It’s adult-themed, and we really wanted to embrace that depth of character.”
And that’s the only place they don’t get gifted. Even very young gifted children can handle those themes. You can embrace the depth of the kids who view the movie, too, not just star in it.
Karen said that she’s, “not sure what version would play to younger audience.”
I am. Take out the f-bomb (seriously, just ask any gifted kid for a synonym) and the scene of the “morning after” and just like that – bam! – appropriate for kids.
This is a relatively minor complaint, but I would warn off parents who monitor that.
Like, you know, I do.
I would recommend it for kids over 13 & up with follow-up discussion about the family’s own set of standards for behavior and language. #nofbombs
Go see it.
Want to see the trailer? I’m including it here.
I can’t wait to see it again. Seriously. I can’t wait.
I hope this movie is the beginning of a new way of looking at gifted in media.
Gifted, you are the bomb. Karen, thank you for the interview.
Thank you to everyone who made this possible. The gifted community is in your debt.
I’m interested in what you all think after you [run right out and] see it.