Film Review: Gifted

Dramedy About Brains Will Hit You In The Feels

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
“Is that Iron Man over there?”
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Hollywood loves precocious kids: particularly the smart-ass ones, because they can always be relied upon to provide a cutting punchline in any family sitcom. By the same token, movies about preternaturally talented children aren’t exactly an uncommon thing (see for example: August Rush, Billy Elliot, Little Man Tate, Akeelah and the Bee, Queen of Katwe, Searching for Bobby Fischer and … um, Baby Geniuses, I guess). But even those tend to miss a lot of the real-life subtleties about raising gifted kids. Gifted, the appropriately titled new film from director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man), tries to address the topic with a bit more depth than the average tale of preteen talent.

Gifted stars Chris Evans (Captain America himself) as Frank Adler, an incredibly handsome, terribly selfless and quietly wounded dude who finds himself guardian of his niece following his sister’s postpartum suicide. Now 7 years old, Mary (Mckenna Grace, a veteran of some 40 movies and TV shows) is a wise-beyond-her-years math whiz, currently bristling at the idea of being sent to an ordinary public school. She knows she’ll be bored out of her skull among regular kids—but mostly the shell-shocked little girl is afraid to leave her beloved uncle’s side. She was only a baby when her mother took her own life, but she’s still traumatized by the abandonment. Frank, for his part, is reluctant to send little Mary off to school. He wants her to have a normal childhood, though, and is dead set against any more homeschooling.

You see, Mary’s mom was a tormented genius herself, particularly ill-equipped to function well in the real world. (As evidenced by her poor choice in baby daddies.) Frank doesn’t want Mary following in his sister’s footsteps—even if it means denying the girl a top-notch academic future. (Also, living in a Florida trailer park and repairing boat engines for a career hasn’t left Frank with the economic wherewithal to send Mary to a tony private school.) So off to public school she goes, where she is immediately singled out by a super-nice, potentially datable-by-her-uncle teacher (comedian Jenny Slate).

Unfortunately, brainy Mary’s sudden appearance at a public institution catches the attention of Frank’s wealthy, domineering mother, Evelyn (British actress Lindsay Duncan from “Sherlock” and
Alice in Wonderland). Evelyn is a prototypical dragon mom, a brilliant academician herself, who gave up her research career to get married and have children. Upset with herself over the decision, Evelyn cracked the whip on her children, pushing them to succeed. Frank eventually opted out, leaving his university career by the wayside. His sister bore up as long as she could. But when she became pregnant at a young age, Evelyn flipped out and all but disowned her—yet another factor in the suicidal depression of Mary’s late mom.

Out of the blue, Evelyn shows up on Frank’s doorstep. Now that little Mary’s of school age and showing signs of her mother’s singular intelligence, Evelyn is insisting the girl be placed on the fast-track to college admission. (Yes, she’s that smart.) Knowing what his sister went through, however, Frank refuses. This sets up a mother/son custody battle that will be decided,
Kramer vs. Kramer-style, in court.

Gifted is a calculated film, to be sure. Emotions will be manipulated, tears will be jerked. But it’s such a sweet-natured story, filled with such likable people, that it’s hard to remain cynical. The screenplay comes from newby Tom Flynn, who wound up on Hollywood’s famous “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays for it. His script is well-grounded in reality and knows enough to stop short of total Hollywood formula. It’s the difference between being manipulated by a skillful chiropractor and a total quack.

At its heart the story addresses a difficult question facing a lot of parents of gifted children: Should these phenoms be pushed to develop their gifts as much as possible, or should they be encouraged to live their lives as ordinary children. The former leaves them with significant life-skill gaps, while the later denies them (and the world) the full benefit of their talents. It’s a tough debate, and
Gifted doesn’t soft-sell it with easy answers. It also keeps the courtroom scenes to a minimum (thankfully), and doesn’t try to turn Evelyn into a stock villain. She’s Frank’s mother, and he loves her despite it all. She just has different ideas than he does.

In the end everything wraps up just as tidy as you’d expect it to. That makes this a much more mainstream film than it might have been. Webb has experimented with both indie films and mainstream movies, and he seems comfortable making
Gifted into an unambiguous crowd-pleaser. But that’s no real sin. Mckenna is cute as hell and successfully navigates her character’s wide-ranging emotions without making the preteen prodigy cloying or annoying. She has a wonderful chemistry with Evans—who is impossibly smart, handsome and fatherly (good luck resisting that triple-threat, ladies). The laughs are genuine and the feelings sincere. No, there’s nothing particularly sophisticated going on here. This is a feel-good comedy-drama all the way. But there’s something irresistibly appealing about it—even if you’ve seen most of these elements before.

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