A cute paint-by-the-numbers heartwarming drama. Although Gifted may be in the vein of a Hallmark Original, it doesn’t shy away from nor sanitize the real problems faced by adults and children. Fresh off the Spider-Man series, director Marc Webb switches gears from superhero action movie to family drama. However, this drama stands out from its counterparts due to the organic feel of the dialog and in how it follows a blockbuster formula. Webb is certainly not new to directing cinematic dramas; he directed the wildly popular 500 Days of Summer which has a cult following in and of itself. Diegetic contrast can easily be drawn between Gifted and 500 Days of Summer in the simple fact that the former is chronologically out of order–but it can easily be said that the movie would not have the artistic or emotional impact that it did if it were told in order–whereas the latter is traditional in linear storytelling. If it were not for Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer’s billing in the film, this one would likely go by the wayside. Over the course of a director or writer’s career (although not limited to those roles), there are occasionally films that provide audiences with a glimpse into a director getting in tough with his or her roots, and this is one of those. More polished and comprehensive than a typical Hallmark movie, Gifted is satisfying enough but does not leave a lasting impact.
Faced with raising his niece Mary (McKenna Grace) after the untimely death of his sister, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) lives a modest, hardworking life in a small coastal town in Florida. Mary is no ordinary child; she is a mathematics prodigy. Against the advice of friend and neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary in a typical elementary school. When Mary’s unparalleled, brilliant mathematical skills come to the attention of Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) and principal, her school encourages Frank to enroll her in an exclusive school for cognitively gifted children. With a deep desire for Mary to have a normal, fun childhood, Frank declines the full-scholarship. News of Mary’s ability and the scholarship soon reach Frank’s mom Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), a genius in her own right. After failing to reason with her son, Evelyn takes him to court in order to secure parental rights. Throughout the custody battle, skeletons come out of the closet and the reasons for Frank’s decisions become clear.
Paralleling the brilliance of Mary’s cognitive abilities, a trait that runs through the entire family, the most notable element that stands out in Gifted is the casting. Child actors playing characters who are atypically outstanding in a particular field can come across as precocious, if not just plain annoying. Whether a kid genius, musical savant, or prima ballerina, attributing adult-like qualities to a child can create a character that comes across as out of touch with the majority of the audience. Not so with McKenna Grace. With her wide eyes, missing front teeth, and refreshing spontaneity, she provides audiences with a relatable character who just happens to be brilliant. This relatablity can be attributed to her down-home charm and humble demeanor. When he’s not saving the world, Captain America is raising his niece in a non-discript small coastal town outside of the bustling Tampa-St. Pete metropolitan area. While many actors become type casted after bringing an iconic character to life, Evans is working to prevent this by appearing in lead roles that are in stark contrast to his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sporting a perpetual scruffy beard, love for the outdoors, and a boyish-fatherly charm, Evans demonstrates his ability to successfully transfer his acting prowess to other genres in cinema outside of his famous Captain America.
Supporting the two leads are Spencer’s Roberta and Duncan’s Evelyn who are interestingly mirror characters in that they are the antithesis of one another. Although her screen time is limited, Roberta’s appearances are strategic and greatly support the emotional pull of the movie. Wise beyond her likely formal education, Roberta cares nearly as much about Mary’s well-being as does her father-figure uncle. Spencer’s charisma is easily seen in this chief supporting role and I cannot think of another female actor who could have done this role justice as well as Spencer did. The character of Evelyn is an interesting one to evaluate. On one hand, she is a monster of a grandmother who wants to control her granddaughter and protect the family’s academic legacy; but for fear of smothering her like she did her own daughter, tries to be as loving and concerned as she can. Although at first I thought that this was a role better suited for Jessica Lange, I do not feel that Lange could have captured the vibrant love that Evelyn has for her family–tough love maybe–but sincere love for and desire for her children to be successful. Evelyn is both an enlightened academic and tough-loving mother and grandmother.
Gifted does its best to be a tear-jerker, but it never quite hits that emotional peak. There were times that I was close to tearing up, but there was just a little something extra missing that prevented the tears from rolling down my face. The plot of this film was as structured, precise, and predictable as a chalk equation on a blackboard, but it still has a charm that will assist it in beckoning patrons to watch it at the cinema when it hits select theaters this week with a wide release predicted in the near future.
Written by R.L. Terry
Written by J.M. Wead