Frank Adler is a single man raising a child prodigy - his spirited young niece Mary - in a coastal town in Florida. Frank's plans for a normal school life for Mary are foiled when the seven-year-old's mathematical abilities come to the attention of Frank's formidable mother Evelyn whose plans for her granddaughter threaten to separate Frank and Mary. Octavia Spencer plays Roberta, Frank and Mary's landlady and best friend. Jenny Slate is Mary's teacher, Bonnie, a young woman whose concern for her student develops into a connection with her uncle as well.
Chris Evans | Jenny Slate | Octavia Spencer | Mckenna Grace | Julie Ann Emery
Here's a piece of advice: don't watch a trailer for Gifted prior to seeing the film. This warning has nothing to do with spoilers; the trailer makes the movie seem like a cloying, paint-by-numbers story that no one in their right mind would pay money to see. It does a disservice to a production that is more insightful and intelligent than one would suppose based on the advertising and marketing material provided by 20th Century Fox. Director Marc Webb brings the same kind of deft craftmanship for drama and low-key humor that he exhibited in 500 Days of Summer and the result is emotionally true and dramatically solid.
The story sounds more generic than it is. Frank Adler (Captain America's Chris Evans) is the guardian of seven-year old Mary (McKenna Grace), his dead sister's daughter. Mary is a prodigy in mathematics, following in her mother's footsteps. Frank decides that Mary, whose pastimes are focused on algebra and calculus, needs to become better rounded socially, so he enrolls her in a public school. Her introduction to the American education system is rocky but a helpful teacher (Jenny Slade), impressed by her mathematical prowess, takes an interest in her. Unfortunately, this is also around the time that Frank's mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), decides that her granddaughter's gifts should be nurtured, not marginalized. This sets up a custody hearing in which two competing philosophies about parenting are pitted against one another. The screenplay is smart enough to present a balanced view in the courtroom, illustrating the positives and negatives of both. Although Gifted must ultimately side with one over the other to provide a satisfying conclusion, Webb and his screenwriter, Tom Flynn, are careful not to demonize either.
There are two components to consider when discussing Gifted. The first is the subject matter, which is uncertain territory for a theatrical release and generally more appropriate for a less ambitious made-for-TV production. However, the decision to establish a personal narrative in the wider context of a cultural question makes Gifted more compelling than it might otherwise be. Put simply, we are asked to contemplate the responsibility of parents and society when it comes to the nurturing and upbringing of a gifted child. Are we to allow them to "just be a kid" or is it incumbent upon us to hone their areas of strength at the cost of other aspects of their lives and personalities? There's no easy answer to this question and Gifted doesn't pretend that there is - it simply puts a human face on the issue.
The second aspect of the movie is its emotional temperature. Movies like Gifted often drift into a quagmire of manipulation and over-the-top histrionics. For the most part, however, Webb avoids this path. Yes, there are times during the final twenty minutes when he gets sappy in a quest to provoke tears and provide closure, but the film is solid when it comes to favoring grounded drama over soapy melodrama. The decision not to make Mary an adorable moppet helps immeasurably. She is presented (wonder of wonders) as a relatively ordinary kid who just happens to be very smart.
Two sequences exemplify Gifted's level of insight and emotional exactitude. In the first, Mary spends a few days in Boston with her grandmother. This could have easily been an opportunity to portray Evelyn as a scheming witch. Instead, it presents scenes of tentative bonding and affection and illustrates that, whatever her deficiencies and blind spots, the older woman genuinely cares about her daughter's daughter. Then there's a meeting between Frank and Evelyn in which the two are able to put aside (at least briefly) their differences and interact in an honest manner.
Although Gifted is closer to Captain Fantastic than Captain America, Chris Evans bring his charisma to the part of Frank and gives a sufficiently credible performance that we're not distracted by his higher profile persona as the First Avenger. McKenna Grace, who has a boatload of TV roles on her resume but limited theatrical exposure, is excellent as Mary - not too adorable, not too snarky, not too shrill. She was age 10 when Gifted was filmed but is believable as three years younger. Lindsay Duncan has the most difficult role - being the putative antagonist whose motives are pure but whose methods are questionable. Effective support comes from Jenny Slade as Mary's first grade teacher and Octavia Spencer as Mary and Frank's neighbor.
Despite Evans' participation, Gifted is a hard sell. The dramatic nature of the material limits its overseas box office potential and the unglamorous story complicates the domestic marketing. The trailer is awful but that's often the case with serious movies that can't be reduced to two minutes of clips. Gifted deserves a chance. It's emotionally satisfying and, excepting some contortions during the final act, intellectually rewarding.