Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of the Movie 'Gifted'

Nobody likes a smart ass

When the science of behavior and mind masquerade as genius there is bound to be confusion. Embracing all aspects of conscious and unconscious experience as well as thought, we establish general principles and superimpose our worldview upon all subjects, including the subject of genius, about which scientists know very little.

How does one explain the variation in the species that produces profoundly, observably-gifted individuals? 

By presenting it in relation to something else.


Natural scientists have been searching for the origin of genius since at least Plato. Today, a neuroscientist might refer to the phenomenon as plasticity, whereas a biologist might offer the theory of evolution. There are perhaps as many theories as there are opinions.

It would seem we don't yet have a roadmap for the further we move along the evolutionary ladder. After opposable thumbs and the ability to utilize one's hands as a unit, we find ourselves faced with a family of ontologies, such as fictional, imaginary, and impossible objects like Pegasus the winged horse or round squares. Genius is thought to reside somewhere nearby.

In the below clip from Men in Black, Edward (Will Smith) determined after a brief hesitation that little Tiffany posed the most threat while trained military officers instantly reacted to the monsters.

"She's the only one that seemed dangerous," says Edward. "She's about to start some *stuff ... those books are way too advanced for her."

This is precisely how I would describe the many complexities of genius: way too advanced for a quick review or movie. Regardless, the movie does address some important aspects of the challenges associated with living with genius, including those experienced by caretakers.

Specifically, the movie addresses these five (5) topics:
  1. What responsibilities do the gifted have to society? 
  2. Are the gifted at a higher risk for existential crisis?
  3. What responsibilities do caregivers have to the gifted? 
  4. Which environment is best for the nurturing of gifted? 
  5. Is childhood development different for the gifted? 

Image result for gifted movie

1. What responsibilities do the gifted have to society? 

Mary's maternal-grandmother believes that Mary is a "one-in-a-billion" mathematical prodigy who should be privately tutored in the hopes of being able to better contribute to society, and perhaps solve one of the Millennium Prize Problems (a set of seven mathematical problems so difficult they have a $1 million prize if you solve them).

Midway we learn that Mary's Grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) was also a mathematician, but that her career ended when she married. Here, it is implied that Evelyn has redirected her emotions and feelings (transference) about succeeding as a mathematician onto her granddaughter, and her daughter before her.

While it may be true that the grandmother (or Evelyn) does appear to suffer from some negative transference conflicts, this psychological affliction does not address what the development of giftedness can do for society. For that, we have to ask questions like:

What can solving math equations do for society? 

Take for example Évariste Galois, who at twenty-years-old solved a concept called - group theory - which today is recognized as the official language of all symmetries.

"And, since symmetry permeates disciplines ranging from the visual arts to music to psychology and the natural sciences, the significance of the discovery cannot be overemphasized." (Mario Livio)

This is where the movie vacillates between ethics and value.

Image result for gifted movie

2. Are the gifted at a higher risk for existential crisis?

An existential crisis occurs when an individual questions whether life has any meaning, purpose, or value. Existential depression can occur following a trauma, leaving a person feeling like they're "falling apart."

Existential depression in gifted individuals is widely documented. In some cases it can be linked to positive disintegration experiences (Dabrowski), but not always. In the movie Little Man Tate, Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd) can solve complicated math problems and play piano extraordinarily well, but he is plagued by big world problems until his intellectual abilities are guided and his emotional needs are met (making friends).

In the movie Gifted, Mary does not seem to suffer from Fred's type of existential crisis until she learns that her biological father did not want her. This is the audience's first real glimpse that she feels deeply. Toward the end of the movie, she hits her uncle, but this could be in part due to the type of television programming they are watching (or to the disingenuous introduction of a court ordering Mary to live with a foster family without legitimate cause).

Instead the movie addresses this subject via the mother, presenting the "risks" (anger, resentment, depression, negative action) but not expounding on them.

Image result for gifted movie math

3. What responsibilities do caregivers have to the gifted? 

What the movie does explore is the responsibilities caregivers have to the gifted. Frank's greatest fear is that he cannot give Mary what she needs to reach her unique potential. As a philosopher, Frank (at the end of the movie) tells Mary that he broke his promise and sent her to a foster family because he doubted his ability to care for her.

In philosophy, an individual is free in the positive extent when they have control over their own life, or are self-determining and free from interference by others. While Mary is young, Frank makes it clear that Mary is smart and capable of knowing what she wants, and that he should have listened to her in the first place. No doubt Frank is familiar with Bentham who coined the term 'negative liberty' to describe the situation when a person is free only in absence of coercion (see Hobbes, Locke, and Hume). It appears Frank mostly wants to love Mary while helping her develop her intellectual abilities and interests, not coerce her into a specific experience, which is what the grandmother attempts to do.

Of course, sitting in the audience, one can't help but feel compelled by the narrative. The audience wants Mary to return to her uncle, where she will be loved for who she is:

"He wanted me before I was smart."

4. Which environment is best for the nurturing of gifted? 

In the movie, being 'gifted' is presented as an intellectual affinity versus an affliction (such as in A Beautiful Mind, when genius is presented in relation to mental illness). Audiences leave with the impression that a loving environment is best for everyone, including the gifted.

But questions linger. In particular, one can't help wonder what potential might be lost when a child engages with ordinary children instead of with his or her intellectual peers. This is precisely what the director wants us to question and debate.

5. Is childhood development different for the gifted? 

Of the gifted it is said that they show clear signs of moral and social responsibility at higher levels of development, and that this occurs earlier in life than it does for most.

According to Dabrowski, there are various levels of development, from narcissistic self-absorption to a life of pure service. This is not an age-related theory. It does not imply that human beings begin life as sociopaths and end up like the Dalai Lama.

Level 1

The individual is concerned with self. In the service of egocentrism, perfectionists become tyrannical. They do not see their own imperfections; instead, they focus on the flaws of others. At this level, other people are used for self-gratification and self-aggrandizement. Parents at this level expect their children to achieve in school, behave well in public, get accepted to an Ivy League university, and become a success in life - to reflect well on them. These individuals set unrealistic standards for others and focus on their flaws; this is accompanied by blame, lack of trust, and feelings of hostility toward others (Hewitt & Flett). This is said to increase the potential of causing debilitating perfectionism in gifted children. While Mary's grandmother is clearly intellectually gifted, her transference is causing her to engage with perfectionism at a lower level.

Level 2

The individual is at the mercy of a society or their social group. They continuously ask themselves, "What will people think of me if I ...?" They experience insecurity and feelings of inferiority toward others; they judge themselves lacking in comparison with others. Polarized - all or nothing - thinking arises, where they judge themselves as either perfect or worthless.

It is said that perfectionists live in a constant state of anxiety about making errors. They have extremely high standards and perceive excessive expectations and negative criticisms from others, including their parents. Sometimes these pressures are real, sometimes they come from within. Perfectionists question their own judgement, lack effective coping strategies, and feel a constant need for approval. They fear being exposed as frauds or imposters. Many avoid the healthy risks that will help them grow, procrastinating, or refusing outright to try new experiences for fear of failure. (Adderholdt-Elliot & Goldberg).

Level 3

Healthier forms of perfectionism emerge when the individual becomes a seeker of self-perfection, instead of feeling inferior to others or feeling inadequate. The person is aware of their potential to be fully human and feels inferior only to that potentiality. Integrity, empathy, wisdom, and harmony are powerful incentives for growth. The longing to become one's best self propels the individual to seek out blind spots, see the truth about themselves, and transform lower-level instincts.

Life is a high drama. There are persecutors (Mary's grandmother and the insensitive, powerful court system), victims (Mary, Frank ... and nearly Fred), and rescuers (Bonnie). The first two levels are compelled by the lower realities, and there is little, if any, awareness that a higher possibility is possible. At Levels IV and V, the pull from the higher reality directs the personality. At Level III, the individual is aware of the higher, but in the beginning is still caught in the lower. The struggle that ensues is painful. To know there is a higher reality, while at the same time feeling incapable of reaching it, causes an agonizing tension. Even though this high drama is difficult, it can work as a catalyst for inner transformation.

Level 4

One gains a greater capacity for self-reflection, for acceptance of others and of self when one has transformed much of the inner polarity and is able to live according to higher ideals. Here, self-regulation is eased. Instead of being controlled by baser desires, such as possessiveness or trying to control others, one is more compassionate, able to think about and understand the plight of others. These individuals have a clearer vision of the meaning of life experiences.

Level 5

Dabrowski refers to Level V as the perfection of the personality. It is life without inner conflict. It is a life directed by the highest guiding principles. These individuals are wise teachers, guides, and exemplars for others. Autonomy is achieved from the lower layers of reality fraught with confusion and violence. Life is lived in service to all humanity, not in service of the ego. The motto, "All is love" reflects the transcendent potential for humanity - and perhaps the greatest gift the 'gifted' can give the world.


Frank Adler (Chris Evans) recognizes and treats his niece's mathematical proclivities with respect and dignity, ensuring that she is presented with theoretical math books that feed her mind's insatiable need for stimuli.

But he is also concerned about Mary's psychological well being and emotional state; in particular because her mother (his sister) took her own life. When Mary wants to continue reading and solving mathematical equations, he insists instead they go to the beach to play and let off a little steam. This tells the audience that as a caretaker, Frank is concerned with Mary's happiness and well being, not just her potential.

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