Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer
Runtime: 1 hr 41 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Opening Day: 20 April 2017
Synopsis: Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a single man raising a child prodigy—his spirited young niece Mary (Mckenna Grace)—in a coastal town in Florida. Frank's plans for a normal school life for Mary are foiled when the seven-year-old’s mathematical abilities come to the attention of Frank’s formidable mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), whose plans for her granddaughter threaten to separate Frank and Mary. Octavia Spencer plays Roberta, Frank and Mary’s landlady and best friend. Jenny Slate is Mary’s teacher, Bonnie, a young woman whose concern for her student develops into a connection with her uncle as well.
What does Chris Evans do in between ‘Captain America’ and ‘The Avengers’? He teams up with former Marvel alum Marc Webb for a very human story of a grade-school math prodigy caught up in a messy custody dispute. There are no superheroes here, no galactic villains, or for that matter any computer-generated gimmicks; instead ‘Gifted’ is a simple, earnest but thoroughly absorbing drama that asks one thought-provoking question – ‘what is in a child’s best interests?’
That is the crux of the debate surrounding the charmingly precocious seven-year-old Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), who already has a handle on advanced calculus on her first day of school. Orphaned after her father abandoned her before she was born and her mother Diane committed suicide six years ago, Mary has been raised and home-schooled by her uncle and guardian Frank (Evans) and supported in no small measure by their affectionately bossy neighbour Roberta (Octavia Spencer). But despite Roberta’s warnings, Uncle Frank thinks it’s time that she’s tried “being a kid” – and that means going to regular school and hanging out with other regular (read: non-gifted) children.
True enough, Mary’s intelligence quickly draws attention at school – first her Math teacher Miss Stevenson (Jenny Slate) and then the principal (Elizabeth Marvel), the latter of whom suggests that Frank send her to a private school for gifted children. It is also the principal who subsequently contacts Mary’s maternal grandmother – in other words Frank’s mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) – when Frank turns down even the offer of a scholarship to send Mary there. Evelyn is quite the complete opposite of Uncle Frank; not only is she authoritarian and condescending, she is also an intellectually elitist, who was more concerned whether her daughter Diane would finally crack the Naiver-Stokes problem (one of the unsolved Millennium Prize problems) than perhaps even her daughter’s mental wellbeing.
Evelyn insists that Mary go live with her in Boston where Mary would attend a school of higher learning and eventually finish what her mother never completed. When Frank refuses, Evelyn takes her case to court to assert custody over Mary. The witness stand is where writer Tom Flynn draws out two sides of the argument compellingly. Should a child of Mary’s faculty be better served in a prep school, where she could develop, hone and expand her god-given abilities to possibly achieve the extraordinary in time to come? Or should she simply deny the gift, and continue living her life as a regular child would, so that she would come to have her childhood, have friends, join the Girl Scouts and someday go to the prom?
As much as these two sides are embodied in a different parent figure (and there is probably no question in any viewer’s mind who is more preferable), each side is given its dues here. Indeed, Webb balances both perspectives nicely, never siding with one or the other but drawing out the pros and cons of each in order to let us ponder on its implications and possible consequences. Webb does take a stand though against Evelyn’s strict regimental parenting, which was the cause of Diane’s depression when she was a teenager and could inadvertently have led to her suicide years later – Evelyn’s cross-examination on the witness stand is absolutely telling of her suffocating presence on the lives of her children Diane and Frank, and we must say an absolutely riveting watch.
Oh yes, that is also a testament to Duncan’s virtuoso acting, conveying keenly her character’s superciliousness, convictions and subsequent heartbreak when confronted with the impact of her parenting on Diane. Duncan’s is but one of the excellent performances here – Grace (whom ‘Designated Survivor’ fans may recognise as President Kirkman’s young daughter) is not only surprisingly not obnoxious as a child genius, but turns out exceedingly appealing especially when she switches from playing the father/daughter dynamic to a brother/sister one with Evans. There is terrific screen chemistry between Evans and Grace, and there is no emotional manipulation just why you’ll end up rooting for them. It must also be said that it is nice to see Evans exude his usual charisma in a more down-to-earth role, as well as let a more vulnerable side show along the way when his character is confronted with the full weight of his responsibilities as Mary’s guardian.
Just as it is for Evans, Webb’s return to intimate small-scale features is also ultimately delightful. Like his ‘500 Days of Summer’, ‘Gifted’ speaks to his knack for relationship themes and shows in how the bond between the various characters is so beautifully drawn – particularly inspired is how Webb avoids amplifying the antagonism between Frank and Evelyn, such that both mother and son can share perfectly normal conversations with each other while feuding in court. His empathy for the characters, lead and supporting, is clearly evident – one utterly charming scene sees Mary using Chris as her makeshift jungle gyms, both of them silhouetted against the sunset; another has Mary and Roberta singing their hearts out during home karaoke to the Cher-Tina Turner duet ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ – and it is also in these details that the film finds its irrepressible, infectious and inimitable sense of warmth.
To conclude by saying that ‘Gifted’ is heart-warming is probably a cliché by now, but really, this is one film that truly warms your heart without ever getting cloying or worse maudlin. Rightly so, Webb places his characters at the centre of the film, letting us appreciate them for who they are without resorting to stock types like hero or villain. There are neither here, but people driven by different beliefs and therefore at odds with each other. In turn, you’ll embrace them, their good and bad, and come to feel their dilemma of choosing what is best for someone they love. Certainly, movies like these make us wish Evans had more down days from donning that Star-Spangled costume.
( Warm, funny, poignant and thoroughly engaging, ‘Gifted’ gives you characters you care about, a compelling premise any parent can identify with, and a trio of great performances – especially a most human one from Captain America himself)
Review by Gabriel Chong