When her uncle and guardian, Frank (Chris Evans) tells seven year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) that she looks beautiful, she responds negatively. “I look like a Disney character,” she states as she emerges from her bedroom in a new dress. It’s her first day of school, and Mary doesn’t want to go.
If that was a scene from a TV sit-com, the remark would have garnered easy laughs from a studio audience. In real-life, delivered with such obvious annoyance from someone so young, it would have sounded pretentious, even obnoxious. But in the new drama Gifted from director Marc Webb, it’s warranted.
As the film will soon show, Mary is not only a gifted mathematician, she’s also bright and incredibly smart in other areas. When she speaks, it’s not that she’s purposely trying to sound like a wisecracking smart aleck; her ability to reason logic and see the big picture with the wisdom of someone way beyond her years is natural. She can’t communicate any other way. But she’s too young to realize how it sounds to others. And it’s not funny. She has yet to develop a filter.
As she waits for the school bus for the first time, Mary continually complains to her uncle about not wanting to go, but for reasons later revealed, Frank is determined that Mary will have a normal childhood with normal new friends her age at a normal public school. “You’re gonna meet kids today you can borrow from for the rest of your life,” he gags. But first day doesn’t work out well, and it’s Frank’s neighbor, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) who warned him it might go that way.
Mary’s pleasant schoolteacher, Bonnie Stevenson (a likable Jenny Slate) is the first to notice the young girl’s advanced intelligence. When teaching basic math, Mary exceeds all expectations without effort. Calculus is no problem. When the principal enters the class to introduce herself, she’s the second, but it’s not because she recognizes the gifted ability of a child to answer a complicated math problem. “Are you the boss?” Mary suddenly asks. When the woman politely smiles and states that, yes, she’s the principal, Mary responds with, “I want you to get on the phone, call Frank, and get me the hell out of here!”
What follows becomes a tug-and-war story when Mary’s Boston based, Cambridge educated, English grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) suddenly appears on Frank’s Floridian doorstep and demands that, going forward, her granddaughter be specially tutored for a life dedicated to the exploration of mathematics. Frank says no. He even turns down a full scholarship offered to Mary, insisting she stays where she is while living the simpler life of an ordinary child. It’s what his sister would have wanted, Frank insists, and that’s how he intends things to be. But Evelyn is a formidable and not altogether likable character, and the Florida courts become involved.
Gifted has the potential to divide. The cynic in some may resist, annoyed with the film’s obvious plot devices in its telling. Did Frank seriously think that nothing would occur once a regular public school witnessed Mary’s advanced abilities in the classroom? And how did he think the courts would react when informed he’s purchased no health insurance for the child? Then there’s the issue of characterizations that appear a little too clear. Grandma Evelyn is such an English snob, negatively indicating undeserved privilege with her Cambridge educated accent to boot, you can’t help but dislike her from the get-go. She’s been a no-show in the child’s early life, but now that the school has confirmed her granddaughter’s remarkable abilities, there she is, ready to whisk the child away. Plus, there’s the issue of the film’s occasional emotional mechanics that may make some feel unnecessarily manipulated.
But there are others who will, and should, embrace the film from the beginning, overlooking the stumbling blocks in order to enjoy the overall theme of a guardian determined to instill a sense of normalcy in a young girl’s life as he tries to adhere to the wishes of his departed and equally genius sister, whose own childhood was robbed. And as for the mechanics of artificial manipulation that might instill tears, what is mawkish to some rings perfectly authentic to others. After all, aren’t all films guilty of manipulation in one way or another?
A comedy tweaks the dialog in an unnatural flow of quips in order to elicit laughs; a horror creates an atmosphere to scare, and often cheats with a sudden ‘Boo’ factor to make you jump; an adventure creates fast-paced situations to excite or have audiences bite their nails. They’re all manipulations. The trick is to make them develop with a natural feel. Weepies have a more difficult time, particularly when the hardened submit to tears, and feel annoyed about it. Gifted does manipulate the emotions, but they’re created with a formula that is more warm-hearted than sickly sweet, something the cynic often has difficulty in separating. When Frank takes Mary and good-neighbor Roberta to the local hospital so that they can witness the joy on the faces of families informed on the birth of a new member just delivered, you can’t help but be moved; it’s one of the nicest, genuine felt moments seen on the screen for some time.
Despite hurdles, overall, Gifted remains an intelligent film about intelligent people written with whip-smart dialog, and that’s such a rarity in current, mainstream cinema. It’s outcome is one of immense satisfaction for all characters concerned, made all the more enjoyable by good performances, particularly from Chris Evans who appears more comfortable and a better actor in a role like Frank than he does while wearing a super-hero costume, and Mckenna Grace as the gifted Mary. When a child psychologist asks the little girl why she would prefer to remain with Frank instead of the luxuries of a comfortable life up north with grandma, she responds, “He wanted me before I was smart.” It’s a line too intelligent for a seven year-old to ever reply, but Mckenna’s delivery makes it sound perfectly natural.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 101 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)