Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their life.
Proverbs 22:6 (Good News Bible)
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket,
or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?
Director Marc Webb and writer Tom Flynn have gifted us with a heart-wrencher that might remind you of Kramer-vs-Kramer. It is a film filled with drama and humor suitable for the whole family (though with the warning that a little girl says a word that parents of a first grader might not want them to say in front of company). Besides being very entertaining, the film deals with the real issue of how a gifted child should be raised.
Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a single man dedicated to raising a child prodigy, his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) whose mother, his sister, had died when Mary was but 6 months old. Once a professor of philosophy at a northern college, he has quit his job and moved to a coastal town in Florida to—well that reason will soon appear.
As the film begins, Mary is resisting going off on her first day of first grade at school. Their landlord, friend, and frequent babysitter Roberta (Octavia Spencer) drops by and lends support to Frank. At school Mary is clearly bored with Bonnie (Jenny Slate), the teacher leading the class in adding up small numbers. When Mary objects, the teacher gives her a harder problem, which Mary promptly answers, and then a difficult one requiring a 3-figure number being multiplied by another 3-figure number. Mary hesitates, and Bonnie turns away, confident she has put the child in her place. However, Mary gives an answer, and a quick check on her calculator reveals that the child is right.
Right after class she brings Mary to the principal, who in turn summons Frank, to whom she proposes that Mary be enrolled at a school for the gifted. Frank at first says that he does not have the money, to which the principal assures him she can arrange for a scholarship. Frank still says “No,” explaining that he had made a promise to his sister before her death that he would give her daughter a normal life, one in which, unlike the mother, she would enjoy a social life and have friends. He says that there is something more important than her pursuing her gift, that she become a decent human being. (At that point I was sold on this story, with its values in the right order!)
That she is already a decent human being we see on the school bus when one of her classmates climbs aboard carrying a beautifully laid out model landscape populated with a good many animals. A much older boy deliberately trips the boy, causing the carefully made display to crash to the floor. Mary objects, and the boy demands what she is going to do about her. She rushes to him, wielding a book (or is it her lunchbox?), which she smashes into his nose. The principal, with Bonnie looking on, confronts Frank and Mary her office, informing him that they boy’s nose has been broken. Frank says that his is unfortunate and will not happen again, but given that Mary was defending a friend against a much bigger and older bully, she ought not to be expelled. She isn’t, and in class she tells Bonnie and the class that she acted because her friend had made the best model of any in the class. The boy beams at such praise, especially given its source.
Bonnie helpfully supplies her brilliant pupil with special work, and also enters into a relationship with Frank. This is the part that gives the film its PG-13 rating, and makes it a questionable choice for family viewing, obviously another case of pandering to the desires of romantics in the audience.
The film’s crisis arises when Mary and Frank are returning home and spy an attractive but older woman standing at their front door. “That’s your grandmother,” he answers her query. Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) lives in Great Britain and has not been in contact with them, until now because she has learned of Mary’s great mathematical genius. She insists that Mary be separated from ordinary children, like the girl’s mother had been so she can develop her “one in a billion” gift of mathematical genius. Mary’s gift, she argues, ought not to be lost. She takes Mary to a university where she shows the girl a row of portraits of mathematical geniuses who had solved intensely difficult problems. She explains that Mary’s mother had been working on something called “The Millennium Problem,” and that had she lived, her picture would have been up there.
When Frank adamantly says that he had promised his sister that he would provide Mary with a regular upbringing, rather than closeting her with professors mentoring her so intensely that there would be no time for a social life, Evelyn sues in court for custody of the child. This portion is a bit of a stretch, with Frank’s record of caring for the girl for almost 7 years and the grandmother not having had any prior contact with the child. Nonetheless, Mary is taken away to foster parents, the scene being very emotional.
It is during the courtroom battle that we learn that Frank had given up his own career as a philosophy teacher and moved south to escape from the mother who had given all her attention to his sister. The special treatment, which included making her spend all her time learning higher mathematics, had turned his sister into a stunted, emotional cripple unable to cope with the outside world, so after a short but bitter career in mathematics, she had committed suicide in her mid-twenties. By entrusting her daughter to her brother, she wanted to save Mary from a similar fate.
In a climactic confrontation between mother and son, Frank reveals a shocking secret that makes Evelyn face the reality of what she is. Evelyn herself had been a gifted mathematician in England, but had fallen in love with an American and moved to the States with him, thus giving up her academic career in order to raise their two children. She had determined that her daughter would not have to make the same sacrifice, but had failed to see the bitter consequences of her action.
The film is well served by its terrific cast, with young Mckenna Grace especially outstanding. It is with good reason that some critics call her a “scene stealer,” as she was also in the Eddie Murphy film Mr. Church. In fact, I wish the filmmakers had concentrated more on what must have been her struggle at school to be a part of the group despite her brilliant mind setting her apart from her normal peers. Near the end we do see her being dropped off at the school and joining her friends on the playground in a patty cake-like game, but this must have required a lot of effort to become accepted, kids so often singling out those who are different for some form of abuse. I know this would make the film more like the X-Man mutants whom society rejects, but it would have been more interesting than the contrived courtroom drama.
Note: If you like this film, you might want to read Aldous Huxley’s classic short story about a gifted child, “Young Archimedes.” https://jennre.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/young-archimedes-aldous-huxley-1924/
This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.