Film producer seeks honest portrayal of growing up gifted

"Gifted" highlights the rewards and challenges of raising a intellectually gifted child. Producer Karen Lunder shares how research played a substantial role in making the film feel authentic.

Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace

“Gifted” does more than share a compelling story about family and difficult decisions — it shows that representation matters for everyone, including gifted children.

The movie emphasizes the many challenging but rewarding aspects of raising a gifted child. Frank (Chris Evans) is a single man raising Mary (Mckenna Grace), the daughter of his deceased sister. Frank wants a normal life for Mary but, as her gift is quickly realized, she gains the attention of her estranged grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who wants to provide for her the kind of education designed to cultivate her innate aptitude. Frank and Evelyn find themselves in a custody battle fighting, coincidentally, for the same thing: what’s best for Mary.

It’s something many parents face when trying to determine the right path for their gifted kids — the challenge of balancing a sense of normalcy and belonging while providing an exacting environment conducive to intellectual growth. It’s a struggle portrayed accurately throughout the movie, in part because the producers aimed for an authentic, honest feel. They did so by interviewing mathematicians, former child prodigies, Mensans and educators who specialize in teaching gifted children.

The film’s producers hope that “Gifted” makes children like Mary feel loved and represented, and encourages them to celebrate what makes them unique. Karen Lunder, one of those producers, stressed that the film, which premiers in theaters April 7, focuses on Mary, her gift and her family. To get a better understanding of the film, we spoke with Lunder about the research, topic and message of “Gifted.”

Anna Gutierrez: What was your motivation behind selecting the topic for "Gifted"?

Karen Lunder: The writer, Tom Flynn, drew on some individual experiences in his own life, not necessarily anyone specific, but he has a sister who is very smart, although not necessarily gifted and very strong in mathematics. She was an inspiration. He also has a young niece who is just a whippersnapper of a person. There’s a scene in “Gifted” where Mary defends her classmate on the school bus. That was something this little girl had really done.

It actually came to me as an early draft of a fully realized story and she was at the beginning of it. Mary was this very — from the script I read on throughout our development of the film — this very magnetic, intriguing, robust, intelligent little person that the movie orbited around.

While it was never sort of our agenda to go out and make a movie about a gifted child, as soon as I read it, it became very, very important to make sure that we told the story in a way that was honest and credible, and we talked to a lot of people and met with a lot of people in an effort to make her portrayal authentic.

Where did you look to find research for this film? What kind of research did you do?

Once [director] Marc Webb came onto the movie, after I had given him the script, I took him to a school for gifted children here in Los Angeles where we met with the faculty, we had lunch with everyone and we talked about all the different anecdotes they were willing to share. Many of the faculty actually had gifted people in their families and had a lot of different experience from different points of view, from being siblings to being parents to being teachers. Then we toured the school. That was really the first step.

We weren’t making a documentary, but we wanted to make sure that it felt honest.

We also spoke with several Mensa members — I reached out to some of them, as we started to get into the mathematical components of the film. While we were prepping the movie, we really wanted to make sure that the math this 7-year-old girl, who had just been sort of homeschooled by her uncle, was doing was in-step with what a math prodigy might be capable of in her situation.

We set up Lindsay Duncan, who plays [Mary’s] grandmother in the film, with a psychologist for gifted children and a parent of one of the prodigies who was consulting on the film to get as much color into it. We weren’t making a documentary, but we wanted to make sure that it felt honest.

How did you get Mckenna Grace to understand her role as Mary?

It’s funny, because Mckenna is an incredibly talented little lady. She really, in many ways, seems beyond her years to me.

She had a very personal, emotional, intuitive reaction to the script when she read it. She loved Mary; she loved how smart she was; she loved how outspoken she was; she adored Fred, the one-eyed cat. She had all of these sort of connections to Mary, and I think it was important to her to play this character.

Obviously we all had a sense of responsibility in wanting to make a great movie and to do something that felt representative.

The movie goes to great lengths to strike a balance between childhood and appealing to the gifted talent. What was the process behind making that happen?

The script evolved when Marc came on board and, as we started to cast it and really build the movie, it became clear that that was such a central question of the movie — what is best for Mary? It’s really a major question of the film, and we really tried to find little ways to illustrate both how Frank (Chris Evans’ character) was nurturing and supporting and helping facilitate her giftedness and the ways in which she maybe wasn’t getting certain things just because of circumstance.

There were a lot of little ways in which we tried to illustrate the difference between what Frank can provide for her and what he can’t. And really, debating the merits of both sides of it. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, you want to give her a normal life,” but what does that mean when somebody’s got a capacity that needs to be nurtured and needs to be honored?

What do you think or hope gifted children will feel after seeing this movie?

I hope that they’ll feel an emotional connection to Mary and to Fred and Frank and Roberta and to the grandmother — to everyone in the movie, in some sense, that at the end of the day this is a film about a gifted child. It’s a movie about a child. It’s a movie about family.

There isn’t any specific rulebook for no matter how gifted you are or are not, no matter how wealthy you are or not, whether you’re in a really structured scholastic environment or not, that this little girl has all of this possibility to live in the world in a way where she can feel love and acceptance and joy, no matter what path she takes.

Hopefully kids will feel like they can see a little of themselves in her, but they can also see the differences, because differences are a good thing.