Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
After two outings of trying to keep up with Marvel's ubiquitous webslinger, director Marc Webb acclimates back to the forte with which he began his directorial journey - small, low-key dramas with memorable characters at their core (see (500) Days of Summer if you need a refresher). He assimilates back into his ostensible comfort zone by giving Gifted a lot more life and nuance than perhaps it would've had if it had gone to a director that would've handled it more conventionally with a lot of music cues letting audiences know when and where to cry.
Don't get too optimistic; Gifted still commits that cardinal sin of letting the score do too much of the emotional heavy-lifting, but around that it functions impressively. It tells the sweet story of a seven-year-old girl named Mary who proves herself to be a math prodigy on the first day of first grade by batting off answers to math most of us couldn't do without a calculator. Her teacher (Jenny Slate) sees her at a level to which the elementary school cannot teach, in which case, her and the school's principal recommend to her de facto guardian Frank (Chris Evans) that she be placed in a private school with a full-ride scholarship.
Frank became Mary's guardian after the suicide of her sister Diane, another remarkable mathematical mind who was in the middle of solving the Navier-Stokes problem, one of the several unsolved Millennium Prize Problems. Due to Mary's father being absent and her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) being out of the picture, Diane wanted Mary to have the life little girls generally have, so she felt safe with letting Frank take that responsibility. However, Evelyn reemerges once the school contacts her, disgusted not only at the fact that Frank and her granddaughter are living in a ramshackle apartment but Frank is preventing Mary from reaching her full potential.
Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan
14 April 2017
Steve's Grade: B-
Frank's motivations do not bear malice towards Mary nor revenge towards Evelyn as she and her respective attorney during the inevitable custody battle seem to think. He fears that if Mary goes to a private school, she'll be further closed off from the rest of the world and adequate, formal socialization with children her age is what he feels she needs the most - not to be put in a place where she has to be reminded every day that she's different. What ensues is a custody battle between Frank and Evelyn, with Frank turning to his neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) for emotional support and encouragement during this time.
Mary is played by ten-year-old Mckenna Grace, a wonderful young actress who put my biggest fear for the film to rest with her first line of dialog - she's likable rather than insufferable. I feared that, much like the child in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Grace's character would be a bratty and condescending child forgiven for ill-tempered behavior because she could spout off equations at calculator-speed. I couldn't have been more wrong. Not only does screenwriter Tom Flynn write her character in a likably sarcastic way with a lot of heart behind her big eyes - something that meshes with the film's smart-ass tone quite well - but Grace also acts with sweet and endearing charisma throughout the film.
Grace clearly works well off of Chris Evans' natural presence, an actor who gives perhaps the best performance of his career in this film. He's asked to play someone that doesn't don patriotic spandex for a change and is clearly up to the task, as seen in some of the most tender moments. Even Lindsay Duncan, who can be uncompromising and incorrigible at times, proves with each passive-aggressive mannerism towards her son that her often unfeeling behavior comes with the motivation to do right by such a special child.
Gifted is a lovely story and it's told with a lot of conviction in the way that it lets the story work at its own pace and the fact that there's no real antagonist in play here - just characters with differing motives seeking a workable solution involving a minor. The misstep is when Webb and Flynn try to make Giftedmore than that, opting for unrealistic courtroom theatrics that undermine, if only for a few minutes, the human drama. During moments when Evelyn is droning on for about two minutes when called to the stand, in a scene that shamelessly tells events rather than shows them, it's clear to audiences that Webb and Flynn are wise when it comes to fueling a story but stumble a bit when it comes to adequately showing it unfold.
But Gifted is well-acted and well-meaning, a simple story about a blessed situation that devolves into a nightmare for several parties due mostly in part because of too much external adult involvement and bickering (aren't most problems?). Webb's film is pleasant fare for Easter weekend and should win over the crowd in the same target demographic as Going in Style that finds that premise a bit too silly for their tastes. Its heart is in the right place and the feelings you get when you leave the theater should affirm the film's overall effectiveness.