“Gifted” tells the story of Mary, a child math prodigy who has a close bond with her uncle, Frank, who becomes Mary’s guardian after her mother dies. The plot becomes overwhelmed by a fraught custody battle with Mary’s grandmother, whose views on Mary’s upbringing are diametrically opposed to Frank’s. The film is punctuated with a few subplots – Frank’s thorny relationship with Mary’s schoolteacher and Frank’s archetypal wise-woman 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 by any stretch. It 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 unresolved. We learn of his past as a Boston philosophy professor, now living in self-exile in a trailer park, but we don’t know why he abandoned academia. The film grasps at the peripheries of a larger and much more intriguing question regarding the 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 swiftly contradicted by their complex feud. We are often unsure who to side with. The film clearly is structured to support Frank, but I didn’t feel loyal to either party.
Albeit, this it difficult material. Most of us have not had to weigh different upbringings for prodigious children. Unrelatable circumstances can often be compensated for by the artistry, acting, or screenwriting of a film. In this case all three are unremarkable. “Gifted” 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 astonishment. She lacks the kind of authenticity that we need to connect with such an extraordinary character.
This is not to say that “Gifted” 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, and a clichéd but appealing life-lesson 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 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 an appealing charm to scenes. Though limited in scope and contrived in vision, “Gifted” is a solidly made film and good for an evening with a mixed crowd.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.