This American film tells the story of a gifted young child living in Florida, USA, who is caught in a custody battle between her grandmother and her uncle.
A 7-years old child, called Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), comes to the attention of her school teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate). Mary is a gifted student, with a special mathematical ability that impresses everyone around her, especially her teacher. She solves difficult mathematical problems in seconds. The Principal of Mary’s school thinks that her intellectual ability justifies a scholarship to a private school for gifted children, and she is offered one.
Her devoted uncle and guardian, Frank Adler (Chris Evans), turns the offer of the scholarship down for fear of people treating Mary as “different” from other children. He wants his niece to have the chance of a normal childhood at another kind of school. He experiences the frustration of a single man, who happens to be raising a child prodigy, and he is finding the going tough. He knows that Mary is acting out – frustrated by her school environment, and adults’ lack of understanding of a personality that cloaks very special abilities. And he is uncertain of what to do.
Mary’s past history reveals the clue to her talents. Her mother was an exceptional mathematician who took her own life when Mary was six months old. Because of Frank’s attitude, Frank’s mother – Mary’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) – flies in from Boston, and takes steps to gain custody of Mary in order to move her away from the influence of her son.
Worried that the judge in the custody battle will rule against him, if he doesn’t compromise, Frank eventually agrees to Mary being placed with a foster family to attend a school of Evelyn’s choice – on the condition that Mary be given her own choice after her 12th birthday. Mary is devastated by her uncle’s decision, and she experiences the emotional effects of “parental abandonment”. Frank is later shocked by the fact that Evelyn is influencing Mary’s education so much, but Evelyn eventually agrees to Frank’s guardianship when he promises to reveal a mathematical secret that he knows Evelyn is desperate to receive, which will guarantee her dead daughter’s fame.
The film combines drama and comedy and provides a complicated emotional picture of a gifted child. It tugs sentimentally at the heart strings. It is manipulative in its tugging, but illustrates the moral dilemmas frequently associated with custody battles: What is in the best interests of a gifted child? Who might be best equipped to provide the help that is needed? How should education specifically target a gifted child’s set of special abilities – and what is the cost?
The movie doesn’t provide answers to these questions, but it raises them for the viewer to contemplate further. The movie through its plot line expresses an opinion early, but most of the major questions linger unresolved. The development of romance between Frank and Mary’s teacher is an unnecessary distraction to the overall tone of the movie. It upsets the emotional balance of the film, and takes the story line a step in the wrong direction.
Control of the movie by Marc Webb, its Director, is gently probing and the film captures the relationship between Mary and Frank well. Octavia Spencer gives an especially impressive performance as Roberta Taylor, Frank’s understanding neighbour and Mary’s surrogate mother. McKenna Grace gives a talented, mature portrayal of a spirited, gifted child, who is difficult to manage, and is caught between people who want different things for her welfare.
The film is enjoyable for the lessons in management that it communicates between a gifted child and significant adults that characterise the child’s emotional world, but it doesn’t probe relationships very deeply. However, the film is a mixture of family melodrama and educational dilemmas that can be enjoyed for what it obviously delivers.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting