Gifted is a new movie by Fox Searchlight Pictures about a profoundly gifted child that opened on April 7, 2017. Several members of the Duke TIP staff attended an early showing of the film and have shared their thoughts on it below. We’ve tried to give you some different perspectives on the movie, including whether it accurately portrays the issues involved in giftedness. Enjoy — and please feel free to share your own opinions about Gifted in the Comments section below.
Giftedness Goes to the Movies
Real life should not be as hard as it is in the movies. That was the thought that kept going through my head while watching the movie, Gifted. In the movies there has to be conflict or there would be no audience. But in real life, calm and thoughtful conversation should be preferred to shouting matches and lawsuits, shouldn’t it?
In this movie, the central tension concerns what is best for an adorable and incredibly mathematically talented little girl named Mary. Although framed as a legal battle between her uncle and her grandmother, the tension could just as easily be described as choosing between her social and academic development.
Figuring out what’s best for any child is difficult. The answer is not printed in a user manual. This process may be even more difficult when she has a unique mathematical talent. Despite not having her biological parents around, Mary is surrounded by caring adults who want what is best for her and who are informed about the educational options available. She may not have financial wealth, but Mary has clearly received opportunities to learn prior to starting school.
Environments like Mary’s may be possible for some children in the US, but they are far from universal. This movie is the (fictional) story of one gifted girl, but it is important that viewers not substitute Mary as poster child for all gifted children, their needs, or their situations. Although a great many lessons may be taken from this movie, I highlight three things to consider:
1: Children can be gifted and not perform at the college level.
In the movie, Mary is learning differential equations at the age of 7. Elizabeth Munch, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics at the University at Albany, notes that depending on how the math is taught and introduced, the level of math that 7-year old Mary is learning (differential equations) would typically be introduced to college sophomores or juniors who are pursuing math. Most college students will never proceed that deeply into math. To put this in context, it means that Mary is performing 12-13 years above her grade level in math. Rapid math learning and performing well above grade level are possible, but are not necessary for a child to require gifted services to meet her learning needs.
They may not all be as brilliant as the protagonist in the movie, but there are millions of students who demonstrate that they can perform well above the age-based grade level to which they are assigned. A 1st grade student who has already mastered 2nd grade math would likely require special services to make sure she is challenged by the math curriculum. For this student, the service could be as simple as having her attend math with 3rd grade students. There are numerous evidence based programs that could be helpful to the millions of students in the US who demonstrate that they can perform above their assigned grade level.
2: Many gifted children are overlooked.
In the movie, Mary is fortunate enough to have informed and empowered adults in her life. Many students, particularly those from low-income or minority families, who could benefit from gifted programming are vastly under-identified for gifted programs. In the movie, Mary’s teacher notices her exceptional performance immediately and takes steps to understand Mary’s ability and provide her opportunities to be challenged. In the real world, many teachers may be able to take such immediate action as well, but this is not universal. Moreover, not every academically talented child makes her talents as immediately visible as happens in the movie. One way to help students and teachers identify giftedness more systematically has been the suggestion that all students are universally assessed for giftedness. Making such decisions is beyond the control of most individuals, but it is important to remember that anyone can become an advocate for gifted students.
3: Gifted children can develop both academically and socially.
In the movie, Mary’s academic and social development are almost treated as opposing forces. Of course, this is a false choice. Both matter and both can be achieved. Research generally shows that many forms of academic acceleration and ability grouping help gifted students learn. Research also generally shows that academic acceleration is associated with social-emotional benefits for gifted students. Exceptions occur, but they are not the norm. Rather than remove them from social development opportunities, gifted programs can provide students the opportunity to meet their “true peers” who have similar interests and abilities as they do while providing them with an opportunity to be just like everyone else in the classroom. How this happens and what “success” looks like will differ across students and situations, but gifted programs can be a social development opportunity.
Mild Spoiler Alert: the ending of this movie suggested to me that maybe life would be better if it were more like the movies. But only without shouting or a lawsuit.
Matthew C. Makel is Director of Research for the Duke University Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP).
Every child has a unique path
By Shayne Goodrum
Playwrights from Shakespeare to current movie makers have recognized the appeal of the familiar stock plot. Viewers identify with the varied characters and relate the character’s action to their own lives. So indeed, Gifted is in many ways one of those predictable plots, but one that is well-acted and touching. I found myself watching from the view point of many of the roles I’ve held in my life. At times I identified with each character. While I was certainly never the prodigy that Mary is, I did experience life in school as a gifted child with all the social angst and desire to learn and connect that we see in the film. Even more powerful was my identification with Frank, whose love for Mary and desire to do the best thing for her leads to anxiety, heartache, and perhaps mistakes. Watching him second-guess himself and wrestle with his own complex past as he works through the decisions parents must make is heart-wrenching and familiar. Parenting is the one job that no one ever does perfectly, but Frank’s struggles are clear and sometimes hard to watch, as he seeks to make good decisions about Mary’s life and education, while working through that familiar, and sometimes unresolved, lens of one’s own past. And with all that, there is the grandmother. Oh my! What a grandmother!
The grandmother stands at the center of this cautionary tale, and I recognize her. I could be her, but I’m not going to let that happen. I am a grandmother myself, one with a gifted grandchild, and I know how tempting it is to want what I consider to be wonderful opportunities for them. In fact, as I watch the grandmother in Gifted and see the choices she made as a parent reflected in the decisions and struggles Frank faces, it is hard not to really dislike her. But what a temptation it is to rest on the assumption that we have wisdom that our children and grandchildren lack, pressing them to take on things that we want for them, as opposed to the ones they want or need. It is extra hard when they are gifted and the general path isn’t sufficient, but the other paths, whether a gifted school or dual enrollment in college classes, are complex to determine.
I recall pushing my own daughter to take on activities that I thought she would excel in and sometimes she did—but sometimes she pushed back. I was lucky she was feisty enough to push back, but I’m sure I made my share of mistakes. It is so tempting as a parent and grandparent to see our children’s successes and their giftedness as something that reflects on our own success, but it’s not true. Every child has a unique path and parenting can only do so much to guide them. I’m proud of all my daughter and her children have accomplished, but I still have to resist that temptation to think it is mine. Finally, by the end of the movie, Mary’s life is her own and Frank has to come to terms with his past. In fact, we have to trust all of our children to do so.
Shayne Goodrum is a lifelong educator who now serves as the Director of Educational Programs for Duke TIP, overseeing all of our academic year and summer residential programs.
An Educator’s Response to Gifted
By D. Lisle
Gifted sparked a multiple of responses for me as I analyzed this fictional situation and compared it to my own experiences over 15 years as an educator. Here are a few topics the movie raised that I think need emphasizing from the viewpoint of an educator, along with some suggestions on how teachers can deal with these issues in real life.
1: Identifying academic giftedness in students
In the movie, Ms. Stevenson, Mary’s teacher, chases her guardian, Frank, down after school and mutters in an uncomfortable way, “I think your daughter may be gifted.” This is after a few brief interactions in class in which she gives Mary increasingly difficult work which Mary finishes quickly and correctly.
If all gifted students were doing differential equations in 1st grade, identifying the gifted would be quite simple. Sometimes it is that obvious, but most often it’s more subtle than that. To be equipped as an educator, learn characteristics of giftedness and make a plan for identifying students in your class. If you work in a school or district with a plan for identifying gifted students, learn more about it. Some schools use universal screenings. Others use portfolios. There may be multiply paths to identification. Commonly they hinge on a recommendation from the classroom teacher. Stay informed of tools and resources available for identifying and developing gifted behaviors in your classroom. If available, work with the gifted specialist when you have questions, need resources, or for help with communicating with families.
2: Differentiating instruction
Another scene shows Mary finishing a math assignment before Ms. Stevenson gets to her seat. When Mary’s teacher gave her another worksheet, I held my breath as a teacher because sometimes gifted students are loaded with more work to keep them busy when they finish quickly — even if they have already proven mastery of the content. This time Ms. Stevenson got it right. Although there are many ways to differentiate content or instruction for gifted students, and another worksheet is not always ideal, she did provide Mary with more challenging material that more closely matched her abilities.
Pre-testing before starting a unit of study or using the “most difficult first” strategy are ways to assess what students know without wasting their time, while still documenting mastery of grade level material. Using compacting and acceleration are great strategies to use in the regular classroom to provide for the needs of gifted students. Educators can also work with other teachers in their school to develop plans for students with similar abilities who are working at advanced levels.
3: Communicating with parents and guardians
Finding a student’s guardian at a bar to discuss school matters or calling a non-custodial adult, in this case the grandmother, and giving them confidential information about a child — both of which happened in the movie — are well below the standards of professionalism for educators. Communicating with parents and guardians, however, is critical in a child’s education. Parents and guardians are experts of their children and will be their advocates when you are no longer there. So it’s important for parents to understand their child academically and know what strategies work.
When a parent is concerned about their child’s needs being met, it is important to listen to the parent and make adjustments as needed. It may be urgent to the parent and they may expect changes tomorrow morning as the child walks into class. If it is a substantial or thoughtful long-term plan, this is unrealistic. Although it is important to develop a plan in a timely manner, be careful not to rush or make unrealistic promises to satisfy the parents. They will trust you more in the long run if you are thoughtful and develop a meaningful plan to meet their child’s needs. Keep the parents informed and let them know what you are doing to meet their child’s needs and what the next steps are for helping their child.
4: Be willing to flex
The movie ends with Frank and Mary seemingly content with a new plan developed to meet Mary’s needs. What we don’t see is what happens later in the year or next year. Children are everchanging and evolving. What may work initially may not work all year. You may have to find a new strategy or a strategy that works in one area may not for another. What worked great the year before may no longer be effective. Evaluate what is effective and be prepared to adjust as needed.
The task of educating any child is a complex yet meaningful endeavor. It’s rarely wrapped up as nicely as the ending of this movie. It’s often messy, confusing, and frustrating. One that often leaves educators wondering if they make the grade when class is dismissed. Communicating effectively with parents while differentiating instruction and adjusting as needed will help provide the best education for the students in your class.
D. Lisle is a former educator who now works for TIP coordinating online services and developing advanced level curriculum for TIP’s 4th-6th Grade Talent Search participants, including our popular eInvestigators program.
But is Gifted a good movie?
By Katy Munger
All other considerations aside, is Gifted a good movie? Yes, it is. Gifted is surprisingly entertaining, emotionally engrossing, and anchored by an excellent cast helped by a down-to-earth script. It’s not a preachy movie, it’s certainly not a boring movie, and the production values are top notch. This is not surprising: Gifted was directed by Marc Webb, who also directed a lovely and overlooked Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie called 500 Days of Summer as well as several of the Spiderman movies. We’re talking mainstream box office here.
Mckenna Grace, in the lead role of the gifted child, is absolutely outstanding and very believable without being obnoxiously precocious or too cute. She’s just a regular little girl, with an age-appropriate emotional capacity, and a truly remarkable aptitude for advanced mathematics. Her uncle and guardian is played by Chris Evans (aka Captain America) who shows a depth in his performance that his previous roles may not have allowed for. Only the overbearing grandmother shows signs of caricature and those signs are slight as, trust me, what she does in this movie and how she acts is certainly not out of the realm of reality.
The script showed restraint in both dialog and plot points. It also managed to avoid a lot of stereotypes and clichés, though not all of them. At least 80% of all movies starring a child seem to bump off the mother before the opening credits even roll, but in this case, it’s admittedly integral to the plot and it’s quite believable. That the scriptwriters skated close to, but nonetheless largely avoided, other stereotypes (notably television and movie racial stereotypes) is admirable and due in part to the skill of the cast. You can see that the actors really care about the message the movie is sending and that they pull back from turning into cartoon characters by exercising restraint in their performances. As a result of this fine writing and acting, and because of the strength of Mckenna Grace’s performance, you become very invested in her fate and are hooked on watching until the very end. Bonus points to the scriptwriters for more than a few plot surprises, which made the movie very entertaining.
Should you take your child to see Gifted? That is, of course, up to you. The main character is only seven years old, but my guess is that older elementary age students will identify with many of the things she goes through. There’s a lovely subplot involving the main character’s relationships with her classmates that I found positive and quite moving. But be aware that there are a few profanity bombs in the movie, several scenes take place in a bar, and one scene includes a character who appears clad only in a towel the morning after an implied romantic interlude. In addition, the plot pits one family member against another, which may concern some parents, and hinges on a past instance of suicide. All of these elements are handled carefully, however, and they could be the basis for some good discussions should you decide to enjoy the movie with your child. It is officially rated PG-13.
Katy Munger is the Director of External Relations and Communications at Duke TIP, so she gets to review the fun stuff about movies, like narrative and story elements.