How Should We Raise Smart Kids? A Review of Gifted

giftedIn My Kid Could Paint That, a fascinating documentary about 4-year-old painting ‘prodigy’ Marla Olmstead, one of the talking head interviewees, Michael Kimmelman, asserts, “[We have] a very bizarre obsession with child prodigies. This fascination we have with the child who somehow exceeds all conceivable human expectations. If the kid seems to be performing on an adult level, then it’s like a magic trick.” Another talking head, Elizabeth Cohen, says, “There’s something charming about seeing a child masquerading as an adult. Everybody likes it when a little kid dresses up in grown-up clothes in their parent’s outfits… [but] there is a very fine line between prodigy and freak.”

The new film Gifted (2017) plays up our love for, and fascination with, brilliant, sassy kids, as well as our disdain for overbearing parents. It is, at core, a moral exploration of the challenges of parenting, namely, what should a parent want for a child? Complicating the situation is that the usual decision-makers for the child, her biological parents, are either dead or completely out of the picture, and there are two adults competing to answer that question with, or maybe for, her.

Taking a break from saving the world as Captain America, Chris Evans is the film’s moral center, Frank, trying to save one little girl from the world. He is an almost impossibly perfect modern man, with the slight imperfection that he just doesn’t have enough confidence in himself (I would add another imperfection being that he defrauds women by sleeping with them apart from any commitment, but that isn’t usually counted against men in modern films). Mckenna Grace is terrific as Mary, the 7-year-old who is following in her deceased mathematician mother’s footsteps in being able to do differential equations when other kids are struggling with simple addition.

Frank is trying to give Mary a normal life at a normal public school, with his hope being that she turn out to be a decent person. He apparently is angry enough at his mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), for over how she treated his brilliant sister to move Mary halfway across the country to get away from Evelyn, but that anger never surfaces in the film. My guess as to why Frank is so patient with his mother, instead of lashing out at her, is that the screenwriter didn’t want the audience to have conflicted feelings towards Frank. In fact, there is very little grey in this film, everyone is pretty much in the good guy or bad guy category. Director Marc Webb manipulates our emotions to try to wring tears out of us (one woman in my theater was bawling when it appeared that a cat had been put down by a vet), but in doing so, he oversimplifies a complicated situation.

The three films I thought about in connection with Gifted were Whiplash, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Midnight Special. Whiplash brilliantly explored the question of how far to push a young person in bringing out their full potential. Searching for Bobby Fischer showed a young chess prodigy, but with the twist that the pushy parent was actually pretty likeable and relatable. Midnight Special played on all of our fears about how the world will take our children from us, particularly if they’re gifted.

Can a gifted child excel academically and have a normal life with friends and playtime in our competitive world? There are plenty of horror stories out there about tennis dads and stage moms, about victims like Judy Garland and Jennifer Caprioti. What Gifted does well is remind us that the key in raising children, gifted or not, is love and unselfishness. That, ultimately, is the greatest gift that a parent can give a child.

PS: While this film is being billed as family-friendly, there is an implied sex scene between two people who have just met, with the woman walking around in a bedsheet the next morning, as well as at least one F-word.

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