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A 12-year-old piano prodigy (played strikingly by actual piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu) battles his parents' expectations (and his own) as he attempts to find his own way in the world. The picture begins with Vitus (pronounced "Veetus") climbing into an airplane and — to the astonishment of a nearby mechanic — firing it up and taking off. The film then flashes back to show how Vitus got to this point, and just where he thinks he's headed.

A willful child, he's been pushed by his hard-driving mother, indulged by his father, adored by his baby-sitter and advised by his gramps (Bruno Ganz), who always had a hankering to be a pilot. Vitus, who has an off-the-charts IQ (he reads the encyclopedia for fun), has an interior life, too: Being smarter than the adults around him, and more than a little conflicted about all the attention he gets as a prodigy, he's determined to find a way to be "normal." With dialogue in French, English and German, a terrific classical score (played by the film's young leading man), and an unlikely but compellingly imagined plotline, this is one intriguing, complicated family drama.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.