Talented cast is the real gift in otherwise predictable family drama
Director Marc Webb’s new film Gifted asks us to not only buy a 7-year-old girl as an MIT-level math genius, but also hunky Captain America star Chris Evans as a former Boston University philosophy professor; I’m not sure which characterization requires the greater suspension of disbelief, but there’s a post-film discussion point for you. While somewhat predictable, Webb’s picture pleasantly surprises by not being nearly as hokey as the trailer would lead you to believe, and by actually offering up some emotionally heartfelt sincerity.
Webb, who previously directed 500 Days of Summer and the first two Amazing Spider Man movies, joins with screenwriter Tom Flynn to bring us a story that, while not wholly original, does have its share of legitimate heart-tugging moments, thanks to a fine cast and some sharp dialogue. American cinema has long been fascinated with math prodigies, and to a pantheon that includes Little Man Tate’s Fred, Good Will Hunting’s Will, A Beautiful Mind’s John Nash, Rain Man’s Ray, and, most recently, Hidden Figures’ Katherine, we can now add little Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace). Like her cinematic counterparts, Mary can stand at a chalkboard and solve complex equations just like Will Hunting, and can rattle off the sums of calculator-worthy addition problems just like Raymond Babbitt.
But, unlike those characters, Mary is only in first grade, and therein lies the problem. Frank (Evans), Mary’s uncle and guardian, wants Mary to lead a normal “kid” life, and so puts her in public school near their coastal Florida home, much to the chagrin of the imposing Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), Frank’s rigid mother and Mary’s grandmother. Evelyn was a math whiz herself, as was her daughter, Diane, Mary’s mother. Frank has been raising Mary since Diane’s death shortly after Mary’s birth, but Evelyn thinks Mary will do better living with her and attending a tony private school in Boston, rather than continuing to stay with the less refined, boat-repairing Uncle Frank in his considerably more modest home. A custody battle between grandmother and uncle thus ensues, with ramifications not only for Evelyn, Frank, and Mary, but for others in their orbit as well, including Frank and Mary’s neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer, herself a Hidden Figures alum), and Mary’s public school teacher Bonnie (the wonderful Jenny Slate).
If after reading this plot set-up you’re already thinking to yourself that you know how things are going to play out, you’re probably not wrong. But Webb and Flynn have thrown in some genuinely moving scenes that keep the platitudes and schmaltz at bay; a scene in a hospital maternity ward, for example, is handled with such unexpected tenderness and poignancy that you can’t help but be truly moved. And although some of the story’s elements strain credulity, credit goes to Evans and Grace for making us never doubt the strength of Frank and Mary’s bond and their bona fide affection for each other.
Cast against type, Evans holds his own here in a more serious, dramatic role, and is convincing as a man thrown into unanticipated circumstances who has altered his entire life to care for his sister’s child; his struggles and frustrations are conveyed with a straightforward purity you might not expect from the star of a superhero franchise. And young Mckenna Grace is the best kind of child actress; she’s not overly precocious, but funny and smart in a way that seems authentic and natural. Evans and Slate have some nice moments together, too, as Bonnie’s earthy humor contrasts nicely with Frank’s quiet reticence (and a side note for those who, as I do, like a little Hollywood dish: Evans and Slate met on the set of this movie and dated for about nine months. They only recently broke up, and Slate opens up about the relationship in a remarkably candid interview that you can read here).
The only disappointment with the casting is that Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer doesn’t get much to do in what is a relatively minor part; it’s a shame that after seeing her in a terrific leading role in last year’s Hidden Figures, she’s relegated here to playing the sassy neighbor lady. But her mere presence helps elevate the proceedings immensely, and she establishes a nice, easy rapport with both Evans and Grace that’s a pleasure to watch.
Although it clings closely to conventions of the family tearjerker genre, Gifted ultimately is an agreeable enough way to spend a few hours, as you find yourself becoming emotionally invested in Frank and Mary in spite of yourself, and hoping for the best outcome for both of them. Oh, and for Fred, Mary’s one-eyed cat, whose storyline is almost as compelling as Mary’s. Now if only Fred could just do some long division, he could be the lead in a sequel: Gifted 2: Good Cat Calculating.
Gifted opens today at Bay Area theaters.