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“Gifted” tells the story of Mary, a child math prodigy who has a close bond with her uncle, Frank,  her guardian after the death of her mother. The plot becomes overwhelmed by a fraught custody battle with Mary’s grandmother, whose views as to Mary’s upbringing are diametrically opposed to Frank’s. The film is punctuated with a few subplots, Frank’s thorny relationship with Mary’s school teacher, as well as Frank’s archetypical wisewoman friend Roberta, who becomes deeply invested in Mary’s welfare. Chris Evans plays Frank, and is supported by Lindsay Duncan, as grandmother (not grandma) Evelyn, Octavia Spencer, and Jenny Slate.
The film is not groundbreaking or memorable by any stretch. The issue is more with the scope and premise of this film which ultimately fails to provide any answers, let alone truly raise any serious questions. It’s entertaining enough, though the painfully awkward scenes between Slate and Evans are a drag and are soured by their fruitless addition to the plot. Frank’s character is left partially resolved. We learn of his past as a Boston philosophy professor, now living in self-exile on a trailer park but we don’t know exactly why he’s abandoned academia. The film is almost grasping at the peripheries of a larger and much more intriguing question of the perhaps false dichotomy between the academic and the plain, the wild and the cosmopolitan, and the moral ramifications of abnormal human intellect.

Something fascinating about the film is that it’s easy to forget that Evelyn and Frank are mother and son. The adage about tragedies bringing families together is so swiftly contradicted by their complex feud that we are often torn between who to side with. The film clearly is structured to support Frank but the topic itself is so rare and distancing that I often felt general concern rather than loyal to a particular party. Albeit, the film is working with difficult material. Most of us have not had to weigh different upbringings for prodigious children. The circumstantially unrelatable can typically be compensated for by the artistry, acting, or screenplay of a film. In this case all three are unremarkable.  It lacks the brilliant writing of Good Will Hunting, the scope and depth of A Beautiful Mind, and the authenticity of Searching for Bobby Fischer.  The film is finely polished but to a sheen that’s a little too high, making it seem almost sterile and bland. Mary herself serves as an elevated plot device, occasionally being inserted in front of a chalkboard to scratch out an advanced equation while a wizened MIT professor scratches his head in astoundment. She lacks the kind of authenticity that we typically need to connect with an extraordinary character.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments. There are some scenes that are deeply felt, particularly a redeeming moment when Frank rescues the family’s cat from a kill shelter as well as a cliched but still appealing life-lesson scene in a hospital. The film really wants to make an impactful and touching statement about the necessity to connect as human beings. Despite its watertight exterior the message of the film is ultimately a messy potpourri of ideas about family, ingenuity, and childhood with a rather uninspired thread binding them together.

See this film only if the topic interests you. Mary is endearing and young McKenna Grace, her portrayer, lends a widely-appealing charm to scenes. Though limited in scope and rather contrived in vision, “Gifted” is a solidly made film and good for an evening with a mixed crowd.

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