In her first job as director Jodie Foster shows us more than competent ability with a willingness to tell a story that's not formulaic.
Jody plays Dede Tate, who could have been her character from "Taxi" all grown up. Her only child is Fred. She tells Fred she doesn't know who his father was. She works odd jobs delivering drinks in a bar and "dancing".
Fred is seven years old for most of the movie, and he's a genius. Not a little bit of genius - Fred has "Good Will Hunting" or maybe above when he grows up kind of genius. He plays classical piano on the clunky upright that Dede sells at one point because finances get a little tight. Fred writes and composes poetry and when other kids are playing kickball on the playground Fred makes chalk drawings that look like they belong in the Louvre.
What Fred would REALLY like is to play kickball with the other kids and not be considered a "freak". When other kids are playing Fred is worrying about the ozone layer and the rain forests and fossil fuels, and Fred worries about it so much that he already has ulcers. He's enrolled in a public school where class is so boring it takes awhile before his teachers realize he's not retarded.
Dianne Wiest plays Jane Grierson, who was another "child prodigy" and played violin in the symphony at age eleven before growing up to head an institute for other hyperintelligent children. She hears about Fred and invites him to come join the group.
Much of the film deals with Fred being torn between biological Mom Dede and intellectual Mom Jane when he still REALLY wants a playmate. Fred sees that despite her super intelligence, Jane is nonetheless alone and lonely. He knows that his intelligence has long since surpassed Dede. The other children at Jane's institute are the kind who get giddy over spelling words backwards and doing differential calculus in their head. One of Fred's early role models, Damon, is nick-named "The Mathemagician" and goes everywhere with a big black cape. Damon admits to Fred that he doesn't have any friends because he's "an a--hole".
At one point Jane takes Fred away with her to the University where she is lecturing and he takes Quantum Physics. In a silly scene Fred enters a full classroom on the first day of class where 80% of the students leave upon discovering that the class is Quantum Physics. Did they not know that when they registered? In a nice touch a little later the Quantum Physics students left behind are straining to look over Fred's shoulder at his notes as he is clearly "getting it" where they are not.
While at the university Fred gets bonked on the head and winds up meeting Eddie, played by Harry Connick, Jr. in a little movie interlude that adds almost nothing to the movie other than a scene where Fred gets a grown-up playmate. Fred the classical pianist watches in awe as Eddie the jazz pianist tickles the ivories. Fred has so much fun that he comes over to Eddie's the next morning. Eddie's fraternity brothers are only too happy to guide young Fred to Eddie's room where he has a young woman in a compromising position.
You don't have to understand Quantum Physics or be able to do complicated math in your head to enjoy this movie - it's about the characters, NOT the academics. We're told over and over that, in addition to his incredible genius, Fred is also super perceptive and "sensitive". He's the kind of kid I hope grows up to be President. Then maybe he can SOLVE global warming, the rain forests, etc.