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Maths In The Movies
A ConquerMaths Movie Review of Gifted
6th September 2017
Gifted tells the story of precocious maths prodigy, seven year old Mary who has grown up with her Uncle Frank following the suicide of her gifted mathematician mother Diane. He is determined that she have a normal life in a mainstream school and is allowed to be ‘just a kid’ so she doesn’t suffer the same pressures as her mother.
However she comes to the attention of maternal Grandmother Evelyn a former mathematician and ‘Tiger Mum’ who is similarly determined Mary be put in an environment suited to her extraordinary intelligence, away from her happy but ‘ordinary’ situation. A bitter custody battle ensues with scenes that left this maths lover sobbing like a baby.
The dichotomies that ‘Gifted’ rest upon are the different opinions held by Frank and Evelyn on the responsibility of parenting, but also on the importance of maths vs the importance of life experience.
Can a mathematical genius also enjoy being a child? Is it imperative that gifted children must be treated differently because of the vast importance of the advancement of mathematical knowledge? These are questions that any parent of a gifted child would have and Frank and his mother do represent two disparate extreme views.
Chris Evans of 'Captain America' fame gives a solid performance as Uncle Frank who is fiercely protective of his niece. He had previously homeschooled her, indulging her interest in mathematics but he says he has "taught her all he knows" and it's time to go to school.
Frank was so traumatized by the suicide of his sister that he is terrified of allowing his niece to go down the same path of hot house academia, saying “the last thing that little girl needs is reinforcement that she's different” as she already struggles to socialize. Yet as Evelyn points out “She’s not normal and treating her as such is negligence on a grand scale.”.
Ultimately the film examines both extremes, either Mary will be taken, sequestered away and prematurely encouraged into a life of hard work which could result in unhappiness… If her Grandmother gets her way, she will be surrounded by tutors and continually pushed to work harder - bearing in mind she is only seven.
If she did so, her future work could have great consequences for the advancement of mathematics and therefore the human race despite the possible dangers to her mental health.
Or will she be ‘allowed’ to be a normal kid and have an unremarkable but happy life with the few people she loves and who love her (including their loving neighbour, skilfully played by Octavia Spencer of 'Hidden Figures') without fulfilling her incredible natural potential?
At times ‘Gifted’ plays upon a presumption that maths is a cold, unfeeling discipline that robs people of their humanity in their burning obsessive quest for answers and success, and yet a crucial point is that throughout the film Mary shows an unfaltering passion for maths. It is naturally fun for her and she finds it fascinating. It’s not just her gifts that are demonstrated, but her devotion to the subject, initially without anyone coercing her – in fact quite the opposite by her uncle.
In one scene Frank is worriedly watching her work on maths problems and decides it’s sunny and they should be outside. She replies no, he insists that it’s a nice day and she replies that she doesn’t care. He says, “come on, no more math” and takes away her maths book, so she merely grabs another – and another. Eventually he has to pick her up and carry her outside as she groans in complaint.
Evelyn, however, takes Mary to M.I.T and shows her a portrait of Grigori Perelman who proved the Poincare conjecture. She also tells Mary about her mother working on the Navier-Stokes problem her whole life and failing to finish (two of the Millenium problems). Mary is very impressed asking if she could ever have her picture up there. Evelyn replies that she could if she worked very hard, and that she would help Mary if that is what she ‘desired’.
During the ensuing bitter custody battle it is often implied that Evelyn pushed her daughter Diane too hard, driving away a love interest, ignoring normal child activities and ultimately causing her poor mental health but she argues that Diane was not like regular people. That in reality her genius, the fact that she was “one in a billion” meant that Evelyn “had responsibilities, which are beyond the mother-daughter relationship”.
Evelyn also claims that “She loved mathematics. It was her passion. She preferred it to all other things” and that ‘She was extraordinary. And extraordinary people come with singular issues and needs. You have no idea of the capability she possessed.”
In a passionate intellectual defence Evelyn explains just how special her daughter was and how much she and people like her could change the world. “The greatest discoveries, which have improved life on this planet have come from minds rarer than radium. Without them, we'd still be crawling in the mud.” Evelyn claims that her daughter understood she was accountable for the gifts she’d been given and didn’t shy away from them.
It’s a harsh point but a good one, we need geniuses like Diane and Mary, they have driven the success and survival of the human race - and they need our support too, with access to the right resources and technology to challenge and nurture their talents as well.
Mary is given a MacBook by her Grandmother loaded up with maths problems she is delighted and crestfallen when Frank says that she can’t work on it as it’s a ‘school night’.
ConquerMaths would have been perfect for someone like Mary, although we suspect she may have worked through the curriculum somewhat faster than most children! But other children who really take to mathematics greatly benefit from having the freedom to work faster at their own pace with ConquerMaths and we think that’s what it comes down to. Give children the tools they need to discover just how far they can go and they can discover how far they want to go, while allowing them space to still be children the rest of the time.
But children also need love though more than anything else and that is where this film really packs a punch and pulls roughly on your heartstrings. Children need to be seen for the people they are too, not just their abilities.
Frank and Mary have a devotion to each other that transcends intellectual arguments and ultimately, Mary is still just a little girl who needs love.
Can there possibly be a happy medium for this unconventional little family?
Gifted is in cinemas now and out on DVD on the 23rd of October in the UK.