Gifted (2017) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer
Director: Marc Webb
Screenplay: Tom Flynn
Review published April 21, 2017
Set in small-town Florida, Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron) stars as Frank Adler, the uncle and sole guardian of his late sister's seven-year-old daughter, Mary (Grace, Independence Day: Resurgence), who he has raised since her early days, as her natural father wanted nothing to do with her. What he knows, and what Bonnie (Slate, The LEGO Batman Movie), her first-grade teacher at the public school she attends, is soon to find out, is that, like her mother, Mary is a prodigy in the realm of mathematics, where she is self-studying calculus while her classmates are just learning what 3+3 is. Administrators think Mary is better off in an accelerated learning path at another school for someone with special gifts. Frank would rather keep her where she is, as he thinks plucking her out of potential friends and into an advanced learning program would rob her of her childhood, which is something that he feels happened to his sister that made her eventually end her own life.
Enter Evelyn (Duncan, Alice Through the Looking Glass), Mary's grandmother from Boston, who sees Mary as the second chance at raising and guiding the next great mathematician. Evelyn thinks it is their duty to foster that growth in a mind that comes so rarely every generation, and she will remove Mary not only from her public school, but also out of the care of Frank, if they do nothing about stoking those fires of their gifted student's desire to greatness. Now there's a custody tug of war between the competing philosophies on what to do about Mary, overshadowed by the story of her mother, whose path did not result in success, even at the cost of her own happiness.
From the advertisements for Gifted, you would think this will be a heavy-handed and highly manufactured feel-good movie that seems to have its heart in the right place, but fails to make a genuine connection with its phony-baloney characters and sitcom-worthy situations. I'm happy to say that this film succeeds at being much more than that. In fact, the worst parts of the movie somehow were the parts that they used in order to market the film in trailers and other ads.
Marc Webb returns here to making films from the heart, which is something he does quite well. In fact, the best parts of his two Amazing Spider-Man films came, not from the big set pieces or CG-infused confrontations of good vs. evil, but in the smaller moments between Peter Parker and his family, or with his love interest, Gwen Stacy. This is a director that knows the affairs of the heart, as evidenced by his best film, his breakthrough, 500 Days of Summer.
Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn (Second String, Watch It) do a very fine job in trying to tread the line between the two sides and their respective outlooks. If Frank wins, Mary gets to be raised as a normal child, but may never achieve the heights she is capable of in life. With Evelyn, Mary is afforded all of the needs she could ever want to hone that gift for numbers and figures to become one of the best in the world, but she will never know what it's like to be a normal persona again. Each side is presented in a logical and persuasive manner, with us hoping for the continued strong emotional bond between uncle and niece, and also knowing that relationship also may cost the world one of its best mathematical minds down the road.
Gifted avoids made-to-TV comparisons due to the quality of its direction, as well as a strong cast of actors who perform each character with just the right level of emotion and frustration necessary. Evans does some very fine work in a blue-collar everyman role, showing grace and care that would suggest he is a perfect father for Mary, though conflicted about what to do about the genius he has living under his roof. He also does very well in his romantic banter with Mary's teacher, with Evans and comedian/actress Jenny Slate showing natural chemistry that also continued off screen shortly after the making of the film (they would break up before the film's official release).
However, truly impressive is the emotional performance from 10-year-old McKenna Grace as Mary, in a role that could have easily come off as too precocious or cloying, which it initially does, but becomes more rounded, grounded, and powerful as the story continues into some tricky dramatic scenes to traverse. Lindsay Duncan also does quite well in delivering Evelyn's rational side that compromises the emotional leanings of Webb's piece with a logical argument to wrestle over.
Though a small film in scope, Gifted does raise some potent social themes, mostly in the drawing upon the question of how much responsibility should rest on the parents for a child who is gifted beyond her years, and at what point should schools or society as a whole intervene with the wishes of that parent. In this way, it's a bit similar to other films that seek to offer similar glimpses in terms of the role of parents in seeing their children grow up their way, such as i am sam, where its the father who may not be intelligent enough to raise a prodigy, or Captain Fantastic, where the nurturing parent's choices are so complete that he removes society out of the equation altogether. Some viewers will also draw comparisons to Good Will Hunting, for its own math prodigy storyline, as well as the pithy and witty banter delivered by its main characters -- perhaps a bit too witty and pithy in both films to feel natural, despite solid acting.
Whereas Gifted does have screenplay issues that don't quite gibe with the real world in terms of plausibility that certain events would happen as they happen in the film, Webb truly is 'gifted' himself at drawing out very good performances from his cast, and knowing how to set up and deliver scenes that will resonate a sense of emotion that allows us to stir in the feeling of the moment. If the writing could have felt more realistic, and the scenes, especially late in the film, could have been handled with a bit less overreaching for heavier drama, Gifted would be one of the best small-scale dramas of the year, instead of one what we have, which is one fueled more by likeability for its characters and less for our interest in what those characters are asked to do from scene to scene.
©2017 Vince Leo