We’ve seen more than a few movies about single parents trying to give a gifted child a normal life. Some have been brilliant; others have been awful.
Gifted isn’t brilliant, but it’s got heart, and a few tweaks to what might otherwise have been a completely formulaic exercise.
Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is raising his niece, Mary (McKenna Grace) in a small town on the Florida coast – earning a living by repairing boats on a freelance basis. They have a great relationship – helped by Frank homeschooling her – but things fray just a bit when he makes attend a regular grade school.
At school she’s bored and more than a little abrasive, but her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) is quick to pick up on her intelligence/gift for math. She talks to the school’s principal (Elizabeth Marvel) and they approach Frank about putting Mary in a school where she can develop her gift.
He refuses, but there’s a spark between the two which leads an incredibly embarrassing moment.
There’s also a moment when Mary stands up to a sixth grade bully and gets in trouble for it – leaving her utterly nonplussed. She can’t understand why she gets in trouble for doing the right thing (of with a little too much enthusiasm).
Shortly thereafter his mother, Mary’s grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) shows up and before you know it she’s suing for custody of the granddaughter she’s never seen.
Mary’s mother, it turns out, was a brilliant mathematician before she committed suicide – and Elizabeth wants to ensure that she reaches her full potential.
On Frank’s side, there’s Roberta (Octavia Spencer), a neighbor who babysits Mary and has become her only real friend. Even though Roberta is ‘the middle-aged black woman who gives sage advice,’ Spenser doesn’t phone in her performance. Roberta is a warm, vibrant woman who doesn’t take guff from anyone and it’s easy to see how she and Mary would be good friends.
In court, Evelyn’s high-powered lawyer is fought to a standstill by a local lawyer. Neither Frank nor Evelyn turns out to be their own best witnesses and a deal is worked out – placing Mary with foster parents while she attends a more appropriate school.
While most of the elements of Gifted are familiar, the tweaks freshen things up enough that, in combination with some fine performances (especially by Grace); it doesn’t feel manipulative to the point where you can see the strings.
Evans’ inherent niceness works well with Frank’s earnestness and Duncan is, as usual, perfect as the slightly frosty Evelyn.
Some of the tweaks (Frank and Mary’s pet – a one-eyed cat called Fred, for example) could be a bit much if the cast wasn’t so good – and director Marc Webb’s (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man) knack for underplaying the tweaks, but going all in on other more critical moments (as when Frank takes Mary to a hospital so she see how becoming parents makes a family feel).
Another twist that is particularly interesting is the way that Frank and Evelyn may have different ideas about how Mary should be raised, but even with their adversarial positions in court, they remain amicable – they may not see eye-to-eye but they aren’t about to be jerks about it.
Tom Flynn’s script provides enough formula tweaks that work – and the cast makes the most of their characters – that, under the subtle direction by Webb, Gifted becomes a rather good film (when it could have been a real dog… sorry Fred…).
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