by Hope Madden
A pensive charmer tries to raise a child prodigy on his own. Gifted offers a premise as rife with possibilities as it is weighed down by likely cliché and melodrama, and it strangely meanders somewhere between the two.
Chris Evans attempts the gruff everyman with some success, playing Uncle Frank, guardian to math genius Mary (Mckenna Grace – very solid). Against the advice of his landlord and Mary’s bestie Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary as a first grader in a local public school.
There Mary wows her good natured teacher (Jenny Slate), and draws the attention of her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who’s been MIA since Mary’s mother – another family genius – died when the girl was just a babe.
What’s the best way to care for a gifted child? This is the conundrum at the heart of the film. In rooting out the answer, writer Tom Flynn wisely keeps Mary at the center of the story. She’s an actual character, not a prop for evangelizing one course of action over another.
Luckily, Grace is up to the task, and her chemistry with Evans feels genuine enough to make you invest in their story.
Perhaps more important is Duncan, a formidable talent who elevates a tough role. She, too, shares a warm chemistry with Evans, and it’s that kind of unexpected character layering that helps Gifted transcend its overcooked family dramedy leanings.
On occasion, Gifted is Little Man Tate without the pathos. At other times, it’s Good Will Hunting for first graders.
Strong performances help the film navigate sentimental trappings, but Flynn’s script veers off in too many underdeveloped and downright needless directions, and director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) can’t find a tone.
Gifted is warm without being too sweet. Though it knows the answer to the question it’s asking, the film resists oversimplification and never stoops to pitting one-dimensional characters against each other in service of a sermon.
Though the final decision about what’s best for Mary is really never in doubt, in getting to that revelation, the film acknowledges nuance in the choice.
That’s not to say Gifted avoids cliché altogether, or that it embraces understatement. It does not – on either count. But it does present an intriguing dilemma, populates its story with thoughtful, almost realistic characters, and refuses to condescend to its audience or its characters.