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The 10 Best Movies About Genius

by Staff Writers

Genius is an amazing thing, granting those with exceptional ability the power to do things regular people might not even be able to conceive as possible. But the gift of genius too often seems to come paired with struggle, as exceptionally talented people often wrestle with mental illness, social missteps, and conflicts within themselves and their families as they are exploited or pushed to develop their abilities further than they’re comfortable with doing. We’ll explore 10 movies that delve into these struggles and shed light on what it’s like to live as a tortured genius.

  1. Good Will Hunting

    This endearing movie launched the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, winning the pair an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Matt Damon, playing the title role, is a young janitor who is a hidden genius in a sea of intellect. While working at MIT, his genius is discovered as he handily, but secretly, solves difficult graduate-level algebraic problems posted on the chalkboard, but is then discovered in the act by a professor. After landing into legal trouble, Hunting is forced to explore his genius, and although he initially preferred to live out his life as a laborer, he was inspired to embrace his ability, while also inspiring the professor and therapist who worked with him. As Hunting struggles with his identity as a genius, he discovers a major fault within himself: he’s just too smart for relationships, overthinking them into oblivion, until the day he comes to terms with his life and past abuses to embrace both himself and the pre-med student who loves him. This story tells a tale of how genius can work against those who have it, and offers a caution against being too smart to live out your own life.

  2. A Beautiful Mind

    Most people would say that they’d love to be insanely smart, but A Beautiful Mind delivers the frustrating story of a tortured genius. In this biopic about John Nash, viewers see the very real mental health struggles some very gifted people go through. This movie follows Nash’s story as he discovers a very interesting mathematical theorem, and even works for the U.S. Department of Defense to stop a Soviet plot, but suffers as his involvement in the Soviet project makes him become increasingly paranoid and obsessive. It is discovered that although Nash is a genius and capable of working out problems that some can only do with the help of computers, he suffers from schizophrenia and has been hallucinating, creating an imaginary world of friends for years. His mental troubles cause problems in his marriage, but eventually, Nash is able to outsmart and control his hallucinations using his considerable genius, and goes on to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on game theory. A Beautiful Mind shows just how difficult life can be for those who are extremely gifted.

  3. The Royal Tenenbaums

    Most movies about genius share the struggles and triumphs of a single gifted individual, but this movie goes beyond the singular, exploring what an entire family of eccentric child prodigies might be like. And not just as children, but in their adult lives as their fame and genius have faded after their father leaves the family. The family members, who have been living separate lives, all come together when the parents are challenged with divorce and an imagined terminal illness. What follows is a highly emotional and absurd look into their love affairs and secrets. This movie explores what it’s like to be extremely gifted and talented, only to let it slip away, but does point out how very possible it is to get right back to it with the right motivation and the support of a great family.

  4. Finding Forrester

    Those who are struck with genius sometimes find themselves afflicted with reclusiveness, too full of a fear of participating in a world that reminds them of past hardships and leaves them open to new ones. But in Finding Forrester, we see the power that mentorship can have on both the mentee and the mentor. A young inner-city student takes Forrester, a reclusive, but talented writer, as his mentor, and together, the two develop. Forrester learns to let go of his reclusive fears, and the young boy develops his incredible talent and determines his future. This movie offers an interesting story of growth and the value of exploring unlikely friendships brought together by mutual talent and the treasures that can grow within them.

  5. Dark Matter

    In a life dedicated to fulfilling academic dreams, what happens when those dreams are not achieved? Dark Matter shares a disturbing look into a story that’s based on true events, as a Ph.D student’s genius is held back with deadly consequences. The student, Liu Xing is working on a cosmology project with a famous professor, Jacob Reiser, and with his obvious talent, quickly becomes a protege until he creates a theory that conflicts with his Reiser’s model. Xing is dismissed, but continues to work on the theory independently, and ultimately submits a dissertation that is not accepted by Reiser, denying Xing’s chance for a PhD and seemingly dooming him to failure. With his dreams shattered and his genius apparently wasted, Xing falls apart, and in the end, guns down Reiser, along with three other individuals involved in his mistreatment before turning the gun on himself. Dark Matter shows that even the most promising of young geniuses can fall victim to failure, frustration, and an ineffective advisor, resulting in a devastating loss.

  6. Rain Man

    Rain Man explores the interesting juxtaposition between an autistic savant, Raymond, and his brother Charlie, a selfish yuppie. We see that genius can be hidden, as Charlie initially appears to be the more successful smarter of the two, while Raymond is obviously mentally challenged, but actually quiet gifted with superb recall abilities as well as the ability to calculate complicated math problems in his head. The two come together after their father dies, having never met previously. Charlie struggles to learn that the inheritance he was expecting is actually going to his previously unknown brother Raymond who lives in a mental institution. Through struggles, exploitation and a cross-country road trip, Raymond and Charlie come to understand and love each other, while at the same time revealing Raymond’s incredible gifts. This movie shares a look into how an autistic genius and his own brother can live in two separate worlds, but somehow come together to care about each other.

  7. Searching for Bobby Fischer

    Genius can be cultivated and nurtured, but at the same time, it is delicate and often resistant to force, especially in a young boy like Josh Waitzkin, who knows who he is and is smart enough to resist those who might want to change him. In Searching for Bobby Fischer, we see as Waitzkin begins to show signs of becoming a chess prodigy, and is then taught how to play "cold-blooded" chess (like chess star Bobby Fischer), which does not work well for him. Instead, Waitzkin seeks out the teachings of a different instructor who shows him to win with good sportsmanship, a way that feels right for him. We learn that he is able to become successful in his pursuit to become a chess prodigy without losing his values and his own identity in the process.

  8. 21

    If you were smart enough to game the system and win the money you need to achieve your dreams, would you go through with it? 21 examines this question and explores how hard it can be to stop while you’re ahead. The movie shares the story of a young MIT student, Ben, who needs $300,000 to finish his schooling and become a doctor, as he is introduced to a secretive club with a solution for his financial problems: highly calculated gambling. Within the club, Ben and his friends learn how to count cards, use codes and signals, and successfully win all of the money Ben needs to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. But after getting a taste of success, Ben finds it difficult to back out, and he gets caught up in theft and threats. This movie shares a lesson that even geniuses can do incredibly stupid things.

  9. Proof

    In Proof, we see what gets left behind when a genius dies and the torch of knowledge and talent is passed between generations. Robert, a math professor who struggled with mental illness, has died, and his daughter Catherine works to tie up his loose ends. She is joined by Hal, a former student who is struggling to come up with his own ways to progress his career. The two work and struggle together and against each other in a search for products of Robert’s mathematical genius, as Catherine and those around her begin to worry that she has inherited her father’s mental illness, along with his mathematical genius. Her ability is revealed when Hal discovers a proof that appears to be left behind by Robert, but was actually written by Catherine. This movie explores the struggle that Catherine experiences as she realizes that her groundbreaking work came at a price: neglecting her father’s genius in his later years so that she could build her own.

  10. Little Man Tate

    Developing exceptional ability is a worthwhile pursuit, but for some, it comes with a high cost: the departure from a normal life. In this movie, we watch as Fred, a child genius who wrote an opera for his mother’s birthday present, is given the opportunity to further grow as a genius with the help of a school that caters to gifted children. But conflict arises as his mother worries that it means he will be taken advantage of and lose the opportunity to live a more conventional life. Learn about the struggle between being socially accepted, and standing out as a child prodigy within Little Man Tate.