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Gifted

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By Sister Helena Burns, F.S.P.
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SISTER HELENA BURNS, F.S.P.

The small film "Gifted" (i.e. small in scope, feel, settings, and in its pint-sized protagonist) is delightful and well-crafted, and asks what it really means to be a successful human being … what it really means to be "gifted."

Mary, a 7-year-old math prodigy like her mother (who committed suicide), has been raised by her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) from infancy. We have an inkling that Frank might also be highly intelligent in his own right (he uses a lot of big words) – and we find out later that he used to be a philosophy professor, but now fixes boats and lives in a very modest housing complex with Mary and their one-eyed cat Fred. However, the arrangement is unofficial and hasn't been ratified in the court system.

Frank is homeschooling her because she's too smart for school and can be rude and impatient with her peers. Roberta (Octavia Spencer) is the earth mother landlady whom Mary loves and who helps her to be just a little girl, have fun, and be warm and huggy. But Frank decides it's time for Mary to go to a regular school, so Mary reluctantly trundles off to the big yellow school bus. Roberta warns Frank that the shaky legal status of he and his niece could now easily be exposed and he could lose Mary.

Mary, Mary, quite sardonic

Needless to say, Mary acts up and acts out on her very first day. She is bored silly and becomes sarcastic with her teacher Bonnie (the squeaky-voiced Jenny Slate, who gives a nuanced performance), and her fellow students. Bonnie practically stumbles across the fact that Mary is a genius. When Mary claims the little math problems she's given in class are "easy," her teacher throws an equation at her that no first-grader could pull off. Mary does. Bonnie tries something harder. Mary does it in her head. The next, even harder problem that Mary does in her head, Bonnie needs a calculator for.

The cool uncle

Although Mary doesn't know how to be a kid, her uncle knows how to handle her and her giftedness, and they have a great relationship. After a few incidents at school, she and Frank have a chat. He tells her that she knows she's not supposed to "show off," and that she should have "compassion" on those she calls "idiot kids."

This little actress may not be a real math savant, but she's certainly a thespian savant. Not one false note. A real natural. Her many contorted faces are the faces a real kid makes – and those tears! But then again, what is it with child and teen actors these days? Even mature, seasoned actors admit: "they're better than us."

‘STEM’ propaganda?

Enter, Grandmother. Grandmother (Frank's mother, who prefers to be called "Evelyn" by her progeny) is the cold-as-ice British matriarch, a somewhat frustrated mathematician who may have lived vicariously through her daughter and may have even pushed her daughter over the edge. She wants Mary to be in a gifted school to reach her full "potential." Frank insists that it was his sister's wish that he raise Mary as a normal kid.

There are some sad little jabs where Mary realizes that figuring out who can/should/wants to raise her is a bit of a problem for everyone. She also realizes that Evelyn kind of regrets having children because "after children...no more math." "Gifted" also seems to be a bit of "girls in STEM" propaganda. I mean, I'm all for equality and progress, but what if the majority of young women aren't terribly interested in making STEM their career or their life? Is that OK?

Evelyn fights valiantly in court to gain custody of her granddaughter (employing the aid of Mary's deadbeat Dad). She is vilified by Frank's lawyer, but smartly defends herself and her view of what is best for gifted individuals (and humankind), claiming that her deceased daughter "knew the responsibility she had been given" to make things better for all humanity.

The beautiful takeaway from "Gifted" is that being "gifted" is so much more than our talents, skills or abilities. Or, as Mary says about Frank, "He wanted me before I was smart."