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Film Review: What can India learn from Gifted (2017)?



Gifted is a 2017 American drama about Mary, a 7-year-old intellectually gifted child, who becomes the subject of a bitter custody battle between her uncle, Frank, and grandmother, Evelyn.


While living with Frank, Mary attends public school, much to her aversion. He cites his reasons for choosing a normal, ‘non-gifted’ institution over home-schooling as her not knowing how to be a child – sans social skills and friends her age, becoming an outcast is not an unrealistic future trajectory for her. He also refuses a full-ride scholarship that would put Mary in a school specially for gifted children because he does not want it to be reinforced that she is different – and goes as far as telling school authorities, ‘dumb her down into a decent human being’.


This decision is fueled by a reason close to Frank’s heart. Mary’s mother, Diane, who was a mathematics prodigy herself, took her own life after proving a famously unsolved Millennium Problem, the Navier-Stokes equation. She entrusted her brother with Mary with one request: to allow her to live a happy life, and to ensure that she had a normal childhood.


While Mary struggles with public school – becoming easily bored in class, not being able to connect with her peers, breaking a bully’s nose, and becoming a quintessential ‘problem child’ – Evelyn picks up a custody battle with Frank because she believes that Mary must be nurtured appropriately as a gifted child should. She says: ‘She [Mary] is not normal - and treating her as such is negligence on a grand scale’. Frank, aware that it was Evelyn’s pressure on Diane to excel that led her towards depression and suicidal tendencies over the span of her life, fights to keep Mary living in his own house.


As the custody battle unfolds, as do the complexities of parenting a gifted child. Both Frank and Evelyn are well intentioned, and yet, both of them make decisions detrimental to Mary. Persistent in his endeavor to raise her as a ‘normal’ child so that she doesn’t follow in her mother’s footsteps, Frank disallows her the appropriate nurturing that she requires, and this can be seen in her frequently display of anger issues, frustration, and inappropriate behavior at school. Afraid that he is dampening her potential, Evelyn is keen on giving Mary the best of opportunities. However, in her quest to do so, she puts pressure on her that no child should be subject to, but that which gifted children often experience – even stating at one point, in reference to the idea of Mary solving a Millennium Problem one day: ‘If you succeed, your name will live forever’.


Evelyn says at one point in court, ‘Diane was extraordinary [...] I had responsibility that went beyond the mother-daughter relationship’. She talks about how when alive, her daughter was ‘accountable for her gift’. Bitter fights ensue while Mary continues to suffer the emotional toll of two adults’ expectations.


What can India learn from this?


Putting the weight of excellence on a gifted child, as many parents and educators do – India not being an exception – is harmful to the child’s psychological well-being. Giftedness is simply not synonymous with achievement and excellence, two things which we usually define by extremely narrow metrics. We tend to forget that, and expect high performance from children who are, apart from their identification as exceptional, just like their non-gifted peers. Putting pressure on children to succeed can lead to self-esteem problems, higher rates of mental illness, an increased risk of suicide, sleep deprivation, health issues, and a refusal to participate in areas where they feel that they might succeed (VeryWell Family). Diane displayed signs of this, including

· Mental health issues (depression)

· Rebellion (running away from home at 17)

· Refusal to publish her proof in her lifetime or her mother’s

· Eventual suicide


On the other hand, denying a gifted child the specialized nurturing they need is also detrimental to them. This can be seen in Mary, Diane’s daughter. When shifted from home schooling to public schooling, she

· Becomes bored in class because of the slow pace of teaching

· Acts out by yelling at the school principal

· Breaks a bully’s nose while defending her classmate

· Feels a lack of belonging and connectedness with her peers (calls them idiots, asks Frank: ‘what if they don’t like me?’, refers to Fred, her cat, during a show-and-tell, as being very smart but not understood by anybody around him)

· Feels the need to dampen herself. (Tells Evelyn, when asked about why she didn’t point out that a sum was presented wrongly, ‘Frank says I’m not allowed to correct older people’, ‘nobody likes a smart ass’).

· Finds it difficult to make friends: ‘People my age are boring’.


Just like Mary who had to swing back and forth between Frank’s and Evelyn’s ideas of what her childhood should comprise of, many of India’s gifted children have to juggle parents’ expectations. While being pushed to utilize their exceptional abilities or talents and simultaneously not receiving the specialized acceleration, education, mentoring, and nurturing that they need, they are likely to suffer from the negative consequences of a difficult upbringing.


However, the story doesn’t end here – we can learn more about giftedness and the unique needs of gifted children from Mary. She displays

· A keen sense of social justice and ‘rightness’ – she stands up to a classmate’s bully and then acknowledges her classmate’s science project in class.

· A reading level beyond her age, having read Zimmer at 6 years old.

· Stimulation through the solving of complex mathematical problems, which is a hallmark of math-giftedness, proven by neuroscientific evidence.

· Philosophical/existential thought, eg. When she asks Frank about the existence of god.

· An interesting mix of maturity and immaturity – she is a problem child at school but has fairly evolved conversations with father which imply a degree of introspection and self-reflection unusual for her age.

· Heightened emotional sensitivity, which can be seen during Frank’s outburst (‘can’t I have 5 minutes to myself’), his leaving her with her foster family, her biological father not meeting her when in town, etc.

· Heightened level of observation for her age, eg. When she talks about why Frank is a good person, saying, ‘he wanted me before I was smart’.

· Boredom in a regular classroom (discussed earlier).

· A connection with people older than her, eg. Her friendship with Roberta and disinterest in befriending her peers in school.


All of these are aspects of a unique childhood that need special attention so that the gifted child in question can flourish in a healthy manner. However, in India, a lack of awareness about acceleration programs, emotional, academic, and psychological needs of gifted children, or of the existence of giftedness itself, denies these children the nurturing that they necessarily require. As discussed before, this has negative consequences and can harm the child in the long run, leaving them prone to mental health issues, substance abuse, dropping out, self-harm, problems with self-concept and self-esteem, and more.


Gifted (2017) sheds light on the challenges of parenting a gifted child, the hereditary links between intelligence and ability within a family, the importance of specialized education for children like Mary (eg. Bonnie giving her extra problems to solve when she finished her math problems earlier than her peers, Shankland giving her a unique problem to solve to assess her giftedness), how supportive or unsupportive environments can play a role in the gifted child’s upbringing, and how family dynamics and mental health issues can have an impact on how the child navigates life. It also touches upon socio-cultural factors like Evelyn not being able to pursue Mathematics research after her education at Cambridge because of marriage and children (and her imposition of her own goals onto the women who succeeded her), and issues of race, eg. Olivia questioning Frank’s choice of a black lawyer over a white one, which would make the court function against him.


We have a lot to learn about the needs, wants, and exceptionalities of children like Mary – who may be an Indian Shreya, or Zahir, or Prabhjot – from Gifted (2017). It presents giftedness not as a catalyst for excellence and success, but as a complex personal and social issue that requires specialized attention from educators, policy makers, and families in India.


Cite this post: Kaur, S. (2019). Film Review: What can India learn from Gifted (2017)? Gifted India. doi: https://www.giftedindia.com/post/film-review-what-can-india-learn-from-gifted-2017

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