May 2024

Gifted (2017)


CAST: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate


Its trailers make it look like Lifetime Original Movie fodder served up with a cute precocious child and a dash of melodramatic courtroom drama, but that does Gifted a bit of a disservice.  The movie isn’t anything hugely ambitious or original, but the movie is more emotionally true and—apart from some third act contrived narrative contortions—the drama more subdued than the previews might suggest, and the result deserves a chance to be judged on its own merits.

Seven-year-old math prodigy Mary (McKenna Grace) lives in coastal Florida with her uncle/guardian Frank Adler (Chris Evans) since the suicide of her mother—a brilliant but troubled math genius—when she was a baby, and after homeschooling her, Frank decides it’s time to enroll her in public school.  On her first day, however, Mary finds the curriculum unchallenging and bewilders her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) by effortlessly solving every increasingly complex algebra problem Bonnie can throw at her.  With Bonnie’s help, Mary gets a chance at a scholarship to an advanced school for gifted children, but Frank turns it down, feeling giving Mary a normal childhood is the top priority.  This puts him at odds with his own estranged British-born mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who swoops down from Boston determined that Mary needs to be pushed to unlock her full potential.  Frank and Evelyn’s clashing ideas of what is in Mary’s best interest erupts into a custody battle pitting mother against son, and Mary torn between them.

Tom Flynn’s screenplay poses some tricky questions about the best approach toward raising a child genius like Mary—should she be allowed to “just be a kid”, or is Frank neglecting a responsibility to nurture her gifts and push her to be the most she can be—-and doesn’t necessarily provide black-and-white answers.  From a material standpoint, Evelyn—a wealthy, cultivated mathematician who can provide Mary with connections and opportunities to put her talents to fullest use—might seem more qualified to nurture Mary than Frank, a blue collar grease monkey who repairs boat motors, but does that make her the most fit parent?  It’s obvious that, at least from an emotional standpoint, the movie’s sympathies lie more with Frank than Evelyn, but Frank is imperfect—he admits to feeling in over-his-head trying to be a parent sometimes, let alone the father figure of a child genius, and has his own self-doubts about whether he’s really doing what’s right for Mary—and Evelyn, while hardly the most likable or sympathetic character, is not a full-fledged “villain”.

There are moments when the movie slips into the quagmire of Lifetime-esque emotional manipulation, most egregiously in a rather odd bit where Frank takes Mary to the hospital to watch families celebrating childbirth that feels a little fuzzy as to what profound life lesson either we or Mary are supposed to take away from this, and later in some third act narrative contortions that feel engineered to give us tearjerking moments of Mary being taken away, later undone with a deus ex machina that feels even more flimsy and manufactured.  For the most part, however, Marc Webb shows the same deftness with quiet low-key character moments that he brought to touches of authenticity in the central relationship of 500 Days of Summer.  The movie has moments of sappy melodrama, but for the most part it stays grounded and keeps the tearjerking to a minimum.

As in SnowpiercerChris Evans takes a lower-profile detour from the superhero genre he’s best known for, downplaying his Captain America looks with a scruffy beard and grease-stained wardrobe.  Frank might not be the most worldly or enterprising individual, but he is (for the most part) a responsible and caring guardian.  Evans is not a great thespian, but he imbues Frank with enough earnestness and has enough chemistry with his young co-star for us to buy their bond.  Veteran UK actress Lindsay Duncan gets the somewhat thankless role of the stern-faced Evelyn, who believes she knows what’s best for Mary but resorts to manipulative methods (her past domineering behavior toward her own late daughter emerges in court).  Few viewers will find Evelyn likable or particularly sympathetic, but she’s allowed at least one affecting moment in the climax, and Duncan plays her more misguided than “villainous”.  Adequate support comes from Octavia Spencer (who previously co-starred with Chris Evans in Snowpiercer) as Frank’s landlord/best friend and Mary’s part-time babysitter, and Jenny Slate (whose onscreen budding romance with Evans bled over into real life during filming), as Mary’s supportive teacher/Frank’s budding love interest, but their screentime is limited.  The best performance in the movie is by ten-year-old McKenna Grace, who delivers the latest impressive child acting, playing Mary as imbued with a genius-level intellect but emotionally still a child (as evidenced when she breaks a bully’s nose on the school bus).  She provides the majority of the snappy one-liners, and runs a whole gamut of emotion, including a teary screaming meltdown, without ever being unconvincing.  Like the best child actors, she plays her part like a real kid instead of trying to be excessively cutesy, and she never seems to be “acting”.  Evans, Duncan, Slate, and Spencer play off of her effectively, but it’s fair to say Grace frequently acts circles around her older and far more experienced co-stars, and while Evans may officially be the “star”, Grace is the movie’s most noteworthy and attention-grabbing performance.

Gifted is one of those nice (in a good sense of the word) little indie movies that fall through the cracks, dismissed as boring by those who flock to the theaters for action flicks or superhero movies (anyone who goes to see Gifted just because it stars “Captain America” might be disappointed).  But for those who appreciate these sorts of quieter, lower-key dramas, it’s emotionally satisfying and raises some difficult questions that might not have black-and-white answers.

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