After two mediocre Amazing Spiderman movies, director Marc Webb returns to low-budget character-driven drama like his directorial debut 500 Days of Summer. Webb’s Gifted is an engaging tear-jerker about a child prodigy. An emotionally manipulative drama, Gifted tries to find the perfect balance between drama and comedy. Moreover, stories concerning child geniuses travel through numerous conventions with unabashed sentimentality. Yet for all its flaws and misgivings, Gifted works, thanks to Webb’s down-to-earth approach and spectacular cast.
The film opens in Central Florida in a quaint, little house. Frank Adler (Chris Evans) has a disputative conversation with his 7-year old math genius Mary (Mckenna Grace). Mary is starting school but she just wants to be home-schooled. What’s obvious through the conversation is the heightened sensitivity and intelligence of the kid. After changing to princely gown, Mary comments, “I look like a Disney character”. The hint of sarcasm in the kid’s words reveals the tedium she feels as an individual who is brighter than grown-ups, yet belittled in many ways.
The dynamic Frank and Mary share goes beyond a parent-child relationship. They behave more or less like long-time buddies. The two of them are supported by a kind, middle-aged landlady/neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Together they form an amiable family unit.
Mary stands out in her elementary class room. She displays a tiny bit of her extraordinary math skills to startle her homeroom teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate). After an altercation in the school bus, the school management is uncertain on how to handle the quick-witted and surefooted Mary.
Bonnie suggests Frank to allow Mary to attend special school. Frank refuses. He just wants to raise her as a normal kid. It’s mysterious why he would choose to keep Mary’s gifts unwrapped.
The reason becomes clear with grandmother Evelyn’s (Lindsay Duncan) entry – Frank’s rich and estranged mother – who learns about Mary’s whereabouts through the school. Mary’s mother was also a math prodigy who took her own life. Frank believes that his mom’s obsession with sister’s gift is what drove her to suicide.
Frank has abandoned his own intellectual pursuits (worked as a philosophy professor) taking the job of a boat mechanic to guard Mary from Evelyn. Evelyn, engrossed by granddaughter’s potential, decides to fight for the child’s custody. She contests that the kid should live in her posh mansion (in Massachusetts) in order to properly cultivate and use her intellectual abilities. Evelyn wonders why Frank would deprive the world to learn and benefit from Mary’s acumen.
The grandma is sure Mary would solve one of the six prominent Millennium prize problems. The same belief is alleged to have ruined Mary’s mother’s life, eventually resulting in her suicide. Evelyn mercilessly begins to build a case against Frank and the narrative swiftly veers towards a high-stakes courtroom drama.
The central theme of Gifted proposes that a child shouldn’t be used as a conduit for adults’ obsessions. What may mar such a theme is the bland characterization of the kid who usually, in American cinema, behaves as a little adult. Marc Webb and Tom Flynn’s screenplay doesn’t fall into that particular pitfall.
Despite her sarcastic streak, Mckenna Grace is never superficial. There’s an unexpectedly realistic vulnerability to Grace’s portrayal of Mary.
Even when the narrative slogs through familiar beats, the kid’s performance is authentic and affecting. Writer Tom Flynn includes a silly, saccharine scene that takes place at a maternity ward. In the hands of another child actor, the scene would have turned out as silly as it was on paper. But Grace’s natural presence manages to wring out some joyful tears.
Despite the kid’s scene-stealing performance, Chris Evans’ understated turn deserves due praise. Evans easily frees himself from Marvel Superhero attitude to play the everyman Frank. He once again proves he is a better actor than the Superhero-free outings allow him to be. Frank, by turns, remains stubborn, persuasive and affectionate, and Evans guides the character with consummate ease.
Tom Flynn’s script is full of interesting lines that bestow little insights about the character. The comic one-liners, mostly uttered by Mary flow with natural ease. ‘Nobody likes a smart-ass’ proclaims Mary in a low-key humorous situation. The philosophical conversations between Mary and Frank are beautifully written. Webb inventively shoots one such exchange, entirely in silhouettes as the sun sets behind them and Mary climbs all over Frank.
Although so much about Gifted works perfectly than what’s usually anticipated, Webb and Flynn don’t entirely keep away from melodrama and genre trappings.
The courtroom scenes were incredibly restrained compared to the narrative’s last half an hour. The script packs twists and turns for a big, schmaltzy reunion. Up until that point, emotional manipulations seem well-earned. But the last act is just contrived and messy writing.
Formally, Gifted isn’t as detailed and striking as 500 Days of Summer. Nevertheless, Webb’s understanding of the characters’ nature and direction of actors is impeccable. At 101 minutes, Gifted is a feel-good drama that offers two warm and heartfelt performances. Even though the narrative stumbles into some of the genre’s pitfalls, its emotional power is undeniable.
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’