“Gifted” – “I look like a Disney character!” – Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace)
Mary – a seven year old – exclaims the aforementioned comment in utter disgust while dressed in a cute, frilly red outfit. It is her first day of school. Until this particular day, her Uncle Frank (Chris Evans) has homeschooled her, but he wants Mary meet kids her own age and make friends. He also realizes – academically – that she will outgrow this elementary school in a matter of a month or two, if not sooner.
Mary is a child prodigy, a genius. She is gifted. Off-the-charts gifted.
The kind of gifted that would fit in a 400-level, university math class, when most kids are attempting to discern the basic differences between consonants and vowels. By the way, the letter “Y” is a consonant, right?
Due to a specific plot point that I will not mention, Frank is Mary’s guardian, but his mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), wants custody of her granddaughter to place her in an uber-intensive university curriculum to solve one of the “millennium problems” in mathematics. Frank sees Mary’s life differently, and hence the story.
Well, the story that director Marc Webb and writer Tom Flynn crafted is a very entertaining, funny and emotional one that zips along at 1 hour 40 minutes. Immediately, Webb establishes Frank and Mary’s relationship from the get-go in their modest, rural Florida community. Evans and Grace perfectly enact an adult/child relationship with Mary exhibiting a bit more sass due to her high IQ, but also because Frank is not her dad. He’s her uncle, and Frank exudes stripes of bachelordom in an in-between state of responsibility, love and devotion for Mary, while also dreaming of just simply existing as a 36-year-old single man. In one key moment – during an argument – Frank accidentally steps on one of Mary’s Legos and his ultimate frustration spills out.
Webb’s “casting cup” overfloweth and spills out some wonderful, key performances from the supporting players too, including Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Glenn Plummer, and Jenny Slate. Slate plays a first grade teacher who cares about Mary’s wellbeing and delivers a light and soft performance. A departure from her usual more sarcastic or edgy characters, but more than pleasant one, in addition to Evans’ charismatic turn sans his Captain America shield.
Since this picture delves into family drama material played out in thousands of films before it, “Gifted” would not work without believable and highly likable lead performances. Evans, Grace and company cover those bases and – along with a nimble script – tug on our heartstrings and surprise us as well, including a highly effective hospital scene – one in which no one was hurt – that demonstrates the power of family.
There is only one place where the picture sustains a self-inflicted wound, however, and it is with Frank’s place of employment. Frank fixes boats for a living, and there is nothing wrong with that type of honest work. On the other hand, his job does not provide health insurance for Mary, and he unnecessarily struggles to make ends meet.
When we discover his more lucrative backstory, one may wonder, “Why grapple with economic forces in the first place, especially when income becomes a factor in the custody fight?”
It certain ups the tension within the story, even though it lowers the bar of basic common sense. Despite this one clearly manufactured plot device, “Gifted” sensibly delivers a strongly-acted crowd pleaser. Thank the two leads for generating audience smiles and tears, and in Grace’s case, a star is born, and trust me, it’s not because Mary was dressed like a Disney character.
Image credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures