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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.


 Jane: Damon? How many fingers?

Damon: Orange.


 Miss Nimvel: How many numbers between 1 and 10 are divisible by 2?

Fred: All of Them.

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