10 Fascinating Child/Teen Prodigy Movies
Gifted children (or prodigy) movies are driven by an intriguing paradox: what if they don’t realize their full potential if not adequately challenged? But what if the pursuit of intense challenges inculcates within them a fear of failure which can adversely impact their childhood and beyond? In a world where individuals can be casually stigmatized for being ‘different’, extraordinary intellect can’t always be a gift. Movies like A Beautiful Mind (2001), Shine (1996), Good Will Hunting (1997), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The End of the Tour (2015), The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016) dealt with super-smart people burdened with mental or emotional problems. The films mentioned below grapple with such problems or quandary (of kids & teens), some with unflinching profundity and some hide its relevant messages beneath saccharine narrative layers.
Fredi M. Murer’s light-hearted and leisurely paced Swiss drama tells the eponymous tale of a 12-year-old piano prodigy (Teo Gheorghiu) who has an IQ of 180. Vitus’ English mother (Julika Jenkins) wants him to be a concert pianist. Dad is an inventor who is too preoccupied with his business. Vitus can truly be himself only with his grandfather (a bewitching performance by the great Bruno Ganz). Murer deals with the familiar ‘gift-can-be-nurse’ story-line, but Vitus mostly suffers from sloppy turns in the final act. Yet the performances keep it grounded and appealing.
10. Gifted (2017)
The undeniably cute and ‘smart-ass’ child-star McKenna Grace is gifted in Marc Webb’s tear-jerking custody battle drama. She plays the spirited 7-year-old Mary, raised by her uncle/guardian Frank Adler (Chris Evans) in the calm neighborhood of Florida. Frank tries his best to raise the kid as her late-sister would have wanted to, and his caring neighbor (Octavia Spencer) also chips in. Worrying that the home-schooled Mary won’t have any friends or real-world experience, Frank enrolls his niece in a local school. Of course, Mary stands out in her elementary classroom. She displays a few of her extraordinary math skills to startle her homeroom teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate). But the child prodigy’s very intelligence attracts the attention of the wealthy maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan).
‘Gifted’ ticks off all the familiar sentimental boxes as it pits a sympathetic child against an evil matriarch. It also duly utters the central message of why children’s intellectual pursuits can’t be strictly defined by adults’ obsessions. Overall, the film is compelling due to the scene-stealing performance of McKenna and understated performance from ‘Captain America’ Evans.
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9. Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
The 2002 documentary Spellbound (by Jeffrey Blitz) grippingly followed eight precocious kids preparing to enter the 1999 National Spelling Bee Championship. Doug Atchison’s Akeelah and the Bee is a more formulaic yet very entertaining movie version on the pre-teen spelling bees. Spear-headed by an impertinent performance by Keke Palmer as the 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson, this is the story of a spelling whiz prodigy, hailing from the low-income neighborhood of LA. The perils of street life, bullying classmates, and a dispassionate single-mom (Angela Bassett) add to Akeelah’s frustrations. But the girl realizes her gift when forced to take part in the school spelling bee and comes under the attention of the coach, Dr.Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).
Despite the universality of the themes (education as a tool against social, economic adversities), Akeelah and the Bee is clouded a bit by saccharine layers that tries to emotionally manipulate us. It is true that the charming performance of Palmer and the somber presence of Fishburne effectively convey the life-affirming messages, yet a little bit restraint would have made it more engaging.
8. Finding Forrester (2000)
The eclectic auteur of American independent cinema, Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Elephant) now and then makes slick, mainstream films; once that withholds his signature style in a fairly predictable narrative. Finding Forrester, an understated drama on a writing prodigy, is one such attempt (Good Will Hunting is his most successful foray into the mainstream cinema). Written by Mike Rich, the film tells the tale of a gifted black teenager named Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown). The 16-year-old living in the projects of Bronx befriends a reclusive alcoholic writer named William Forrester (Sean Connery), who wrote the single great American novel, won a Pulitzer Prize, and then disappeared from the limelight.
Jamal is a wonderful basketball player and an athlete, but his true gifts lie in writing. And it’s apparent that the grumpy yet well-meaning Forrester becomes a mentor of sorts to the unmotivated Jamal (something like ‘Scent of a Woman’). Gus Van Sant does a brilliant job in casting a non-actor like Rob Brown against an eloquent performer like Connery. In fact, apart from the positive message, feel-good drama and depiction of how intellectual gifts can be a burden, the best aspect of Finding Forrester are observing the fine rhythms of their performances.
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7. Queen of Katwe (2016)
Mira Nair’s chess prodigy movie stays within the conventions of an inspirational drama formula, but yet it succeeds in winning us over through earnest film-making and terrific performances. Based on Tim Crothers’ book of the same name, the story follows 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), growing up in the impoverished slums of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. She helps her widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o) by taking care of her siblings and also sells vegetables in the market. Phiona is also a bright kid whose life changes for the better when she crosses the path of well-educated soccer & chess coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo).
Screenwriter William Wheeler and director Mira Nair flesh out all the familiar chess metaphors to establish this tale of triumph over adversity. It’s a classic Disney fare although Mira Nair employs her sensitive, inquisitive directorial touch to curb the stodginess to an extent. Steve McQueen’s cinematographer Sean Bobbitt also vividly brings to life the portrait of Uganda’s marginalized. Apart from seasoned performer Oyelowo, the newcomers Madina and Nikita Pearl Waligwa make the film compulsively watchable (there’s a deep sadness in watching Waligwa since she recently died of a brain tumor at the age of 15). Overall, it’s an uplifting entertainment for the whole family.
6. La Bamba (1987)
Luis Valdez’s La Bamba tells the story of Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes aka Ritchie Valens, a teenage Chicano rock n roll star from Los Angeles. Mr. Valens joined his first band at the age of 16 (in 1958), and he skyrocketed to fame by the time he was 17, turning out hit numbers like ‘Donna’, ‘Come On, Let’s Go’, and ‘La Bamba’. But Valens died tragically in a plane crash in the spring of 1959, alongside fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson. Even though his life was cut short, he has earned a lasting legacy through his songs.
Lou Diamond Philips (Young Guns, Stand and Deliver) plays Ritchie Valens, which became his career-making and defining role. Luis Valdez’s biopic is straightforward and energetic, starting from Valens’ interest in music at the age of five, then taking up guitar and trumpet, and also later mastered the drums. Valens was the second of the five children. He grew up in a poor household, mother worked as a waitress and father left the family when he was little.
The biopic offers a good sense of the teen prodigy’s private life, and the inspirations he acquired to make his hit songs (in a brief yet brilliant music career). Although Diamond Philips was 25 years old when he played Valens, he has delivered a very convincing performance and is perfect in all the musical moments. Moreover, La Bamba doesn’t get stuck in the tiresome biopic platitudes and remains heartfelt to the end.
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5. A Brilliant Young Mind (2014)
Similar to Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound (2002), Morgan Matthews’ 2007 BBC documentary, Beautiful Young Minds follows a group of UK teenagers competing to represent the UK at the International Mathematical Olympiad. Mr. Matthews explores the same subject, but from an intensely subjective perspective of a math prodigy and Yorkshire high-schooler, Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) in his feature-film debut. Nathan has communication challenges as he is on the autistic spectrum although the adults in his life, especially his loving parents (Sally Hawkins & Martin McCann), do their best to emotionally connect with him.
Nathan finds a mentor in teacher Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a former International Mathematics Olympiad competitor, but now afflicted with multiple sclerosis and self-loathing. Once Nathan qualifies at the Mathematics Olympiad’s tryouts, he travels to Taiwan. There he meets Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a Chinese team member, whose friendship helps Nathan to let go of his anxiety and come to terms with his emotions. A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X+ Y) is largely commendable for not dabbling with autistic savant stereotypes (‘Rain Man’) and shaping it as a unique character piece. The heartwarming film does have its share of clichés, but the well-rounded characters and solid performances make it much more interesting.
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4. Little Man Tate (1991)
Jodie Foster’s superb directorial debut tells a heartwarming story of a child genius looking for social acceptance. Single-mom Dede (Foster) learns that her 7-year-old son Fred Tate (Adam-Hann Byrd) is profoundly gifted to master the fields of music, art, and math. Fred’s towering intellect makes him an outcast among his fellow second-graders. Dede does her best to attend to her son’s emotional needs but without much success. Nevertheless, when Fred’s prowess comes under the attention of a famous child psychologist Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), she attempts to nurture his gifts by making him go to college.
Jane, herself a prodigy, now runs an institute for the gifted children. Tension arises between Jane and Dede as they are in conflict over what’s best for Fred. A child whose intelligence even baffles his college mates, and yet he’s also a boy who can’t be denied a childhood. Little Man Tate is anchored by a trio of phenomenal performance (Foster, Byrd, and Wiest), and robust direction that deftly balances between drama and character insight. Popular screenwriter Steven Zaillian dealt with similar themes in his own directorial debut Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) in a different set-up, but the latter film was stylistically superior compared to Little Man Tate. Nevertheless, Foster’s movie is thought-provoking and has minimal Hollywoodization.
3. Billy Elliot (2000)
Stephen Daldry’s social-realist dramedy, written by Lee Hall, is set in the working-class neighborhood north of England. The eponymous protagonist is an 11-year-old boy (Jamie Bell) who shows interest in learning ballet. Billy’s widowed father and elder brother are involved in the coal miner’s strike (1984-1985) that turned violent and chaotic once Margaret Thatcher’s government adopted draconian measures to curb the strike. Boxing is naturally the workers’ sport since it allows them to expend their frustration of being constantly brushed off by the bureaucracy. So naturally, Billy’s fascination for ballet goes against conventional manly aspirations. Yet the miracle happens and Billy dances, while his inner strength and the teacher’s (Julie Walters) encouragement pushes him to experience the transcendental power of art.
Billy Elliot is definitely predictable and lacks a bit of the joyous spirit of The Full Monty (1997). Yet Daldry’s debut feature has enough emotional bite to rise above its contrivances. Furthermore, Jamie Bell – who was supposed to have been selected out of 2,000 children – delivers such a graceful and poignant performance. Brassed Off (1996), Full Monty, and Billy Elliot are all significant British films set in the post-industrial market place, exploring the ideas of masculinity. And Billy Elliot is more relevant for its universality as it grapples with the folly of burdening socially defined masculine standards on a boy.
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2. Fresh (1994)
Boaz Yakin’s brilliantly assured directorial debut breaks new ground on the clichéd ‘hood’ movie. Fresh (Sean Nelson) is a 12-year-old chess prodigy, living in a crowded apartment with his brothers, sisters, cousins, and aunt that’s situated in a crack-peddling neighborhood. Fresh’s teacher is his alcoholic father (Samuel L. Jackson), who plays chess in the park for money and lives alone in a trailer. Fresh’s elder sister Nicole (N’Bushe Wright) is on a downward spiral due to her heroin addiction and receives drugs in exchange for sex from Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito). Fresh also works for Esteban as a ‘runner’. Using the strategic lessons of chess, he learned from his dad, Fresh plays a game to triumph over the corrupt forces in society.
Fresh may sound like a vigilante feature involving a street-hardened kid. But Yakin’s distinct characterization of Fresh and electrifying writing doesn’t rehash the usual ghetto-set clichés. Apart from showcasing the gritty realism and violent showdowns, Yakin excels in bringing a more contemplative dimension to the script. Moreover, Nelson’s impassivity which withholds the insularity of a chess-player makes him a very enigmatic character than the conventional ‘intelligent slum kid’ character.
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1. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
When an acclaimed screenwriter like Steven Zaillian (The Awakenings, Schindler’s List) makes his directorial debut, you’d generally expect him to put his words in the foreground; establishing mechanics of storytelling through modest visuals. But few minutes into Searching for Bobby Fischer, you’d marvel at how the impact of Zaillian’s remarkable script is further boosted by his extraordinarily imaginative imagery (cinematography by Conrad L. Hall). Searching for Bobby Fischer, on the outset, is a typical based-on-a-true-story chess prodigy drama. And in fact, it doesn’t entirely do away with the sentimental aspects. Nevertheless, there are profoundly artistic visual passages here (unfolding with zero dialogues) which gracefully zeroes-in on the thematic preoccupations.
Steven Zaillian raises lot of meaningful questions about child prodigies whose gifts can also be their curse. Can a person be a genius and also a decent human being? On a broader scale, it reflects the universal parental dilemma: should I nurture the innate decency within my kid? Or should I push him to reach maximum potential and to prepare him for the dog-eat-dog world, where altruism and politeness are considered as vulnerability? The protagonist is the seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) whose chess skills makes people whisper that he is the spiritual heir to the troubled & phenomenally talented grandmaster, Bobby Fischer.
As far as Prodigy movies are concerned, Searching for Bobby Fischer is blessed with a wonderful ensemble cast, including Joe Mantegna, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, and Joan Allen. But it is Mr. Pomeranc’s tender performance that steals the show (probably one of the best child performances ever). Overall, it is clearly the best film to chronicle the existential angst of a child prodigy.