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"It's not what he knows. It's what he understands."
Dede Tate (Jodie Foster) is a single mother raising her incredibly gifted son Fred. At just seven years old, Fred can paint, write poetry, play piano, and understand complex mathematics and physics. His extraordinary intelligence attracts the attention of Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a psychologist who runs a school for gifted children. Jane takes special interest in Fred's case and tries to convince Dede to admit Fred to the Grierson Institute so he can develop his gifts in a structured environment.
Dede hesitates to expose Fred to the competitive world of academics but eventually relents and enrolls Fred in Jane's school as well as several courses in college. Fred excels at the institute but can't seem to fit in with other gifted children or with college students twice his age. The separation from his mother starts to take a toll on Fred and Jane is at a loss for how to help him adjust. Dede and Jane must work together to find a way to balance Fred's unique intellectual needs with his desire to have a normal childhood.
This film provides examples of:
- All Guitars Are Stratocasters: Dede tries to compensate for having to sell Fred's piano by panting one on the wall. Fred points out that she didn't paint the right number of keys.
- All of Them: See Mathematician's Answer.
- Bad Dreams: Fred suffers from nightmares because of how much he worries about war, death, and other concerns beyond his years.
- Child Prodigy: Fred is proficient at math, physics, and art at just seven-years-old. Other children at the Grierson Institute are gifted at (or near) genius-level as well.
- Jane was a prodigy as a child in both mathematics and as a violin player.
- Control Freak / Neat Freak: Jane's house is impeccably organized. She very clearly cannot handle disorder.
- Disappeared Dad: Fred's father.
Fred: Dede says I don't have dad. She says I'm the immaculate conception. That's a pretty big responsibility for a little kid.
- Directed by Cast Member: Jodie Foster's first directing project.
- Foil: Dede and Jane.
- Friendless Background: Fred has no friends his age because he doesn't know how to relate to them.
- Good with Numbers: Damon Wells is famous for his incredible mathematic ability.
- Fred has an aptitude for numbers too.
- Hands-Off Parenting / Parental Abandonment: Jane's parents were both doctors who traveled frequently and "needed to be alone".
- How Many Fingers?: Jane asks the pinnacle question after Damon falls off a horse.
Jane: Damon? How many fingers?
- I Just Want to Have Friends / I Just Want to Be Normal: Fred desperately wants to make friends and act like a normal kid.
- Innocent Prodigy: Fred is emotionally mature for his age but he's still only seven-years-old. His friendship with Eddie makes it all the more obvious.
- Intelligence Equals Isolation: Played with in Fred's case. Dede is worried that Fred's intelligence will alienate him from other kids.
- Played straight for Jane. She was a child prodigy and spent nearly all of her time studying. As an adult, her entire life has been devoted to teaching and mentoring child prodigies. She has no family or any friends besides her assistant Garth.
- Insufferable Genius: Jane wanders into insufferable territory every once and a while.
- Just a Kid: Dede fears Fred might get in over his head in college because he's so young.
- Just the Introduction to The Opposites: Fred's composure and maturity contrasts with his carefree, childlike mother Dede.
- Kids Are Cruel: Part of why Dede worries about Fred's future.
- Lethal Chef: Jane prepares a disastrous meatloaf in an attempt to get in touch with her maternal side.
- Mama Bear: Dede. She threatens to kill Jane if anything happens to Fred.
- Mathematician's Answer:
Miss Nimvel: How many numbers between 1 and 10 are divisible by 2?
- My Parents Are Dead: Fred says his mother is dead during a television interview.
- No Social Skills: Jane has no concept of how to emotionally relate to others. When Fred has a nightmare, she doesn't know how to comfort him.
- Oh, No, Not Again: Jane says something to this effect when Fred gets hurt a second time while on campus.
- Teen Genius: Damon Wells.
- The Smart Guy: Fred.
- The Snark Knight: Damon Wells.
- The Spock: Jane.
- Too Clever by Half: Fred is pushed to the limit between his college classes and instruction at the institute. The pressure causes him to have a melt-down on national television and run away from the studio.
- Vomit Discretion Shot: Fred turns away and throws up after drinking a protein shake.
- Workaholic: Jane.