Chris Evans—an actor you may recognize, but I don’t—is a Lincoln-Sudbury alum (’99?) and the star of the movie Gifted, which you should definitely see. See it even if you have no connection whatsoever with either Lincoln or Sudbury!
Evans plays a BU philosophy professor, Frank, who quits his job to become a freelance boat repairman in Florida. He has custody of his seven-year-old niece, Mary, who is (to put it mildly) a math prodigy. They live with her one-eyed cat, Fred. But Frank’s custody is being contested by his mother, Evelyn. What you need to understand is that Mary prefers to spend her time solving differential equations and learning higher mathematics, whereas her mild-mannered uncle wants her to have a normal childhood going to public school and having friends her own age. The grandmother wants her to go to a school for gifted kids and eventually become a famous mathematician. Important background: the mother, a math genius, had committed suicide long before the movie starts, and the clueless father was never in the picture, so it falls to the uncle and/or the grandmother to raise Mary.
Therein lies the dilemma, or conflict if we want to look at it in terms of literature. And looking it at it as literature would be a pretty straightforward task, a nice assignment for a high-school English class, since characters, plot, setting, and theme are all readily accessible.
If it matters to you—and of course it does to me—the math in the movie is accurate, as far as I can tell, mostly because of the consulting work done by Terence Tao and Jordan Ellenberg. (You also see Ellenberg appearing in the movie in a cameo as an MIT professor.) One of the million-dollar Millennium problems is a major plot point in the story—but don’t worry, you don’t have to understand the problem. (I certainly don’t. I’ll consult my friend and colleague Leah Gordon, since she’s the expert on fluid dynamics in my world.)
A few words on what the movie is not:
- It doesn’t fall into the common trap of presenting math as weird.
- Nor does it fall into the trap of presenting mathematical geniuses as crazy.
- It doesn’t judge the uncle, either for being a philosopher or for quitting his job.
- On a related point, it doesn’t make a big deal about the major social class differences that are sitting right on the surface.
- It also doesn’t make a big deal about the math prodigy being a girl: that’s just taken for granted, as it should be.
- It doesn’t play up some possible racial conflicts. There is a single line where Frank’s closest friend, a black woman, says to him “Couldn’t you have found a white lawyer?”—but otherwise racial issues are treated totally matter-of-factly, even though the story takes place in Florida.
- It doesn’t push us into taking sides on the main conflict. Both views are presented fairly and equally.
- It isn’t preachy: at its heart it’s a story, not a vehicle for scoring debating points.
- It’s not a true story. It’s fiction, just fiction.
You’ll have to see the movie to find out why Fred, the cat, is important and how Mary’s public-school teacher fits into the plot.
Categories: Movies & (occasionally) TV, Teaching & Learning