By Chaz Lipp
The Lowdown: Winning performances by Chris Evans, Lindsay Duncan, and Mckenna Grace (plus an adorable one-eyed cat) keep things entertaining, but given the material this should’ve cut deeper.
Want to see Chris Evans playing a totally different kind of hero? Gifted finds the Captain America star playing guardian to a young girl (his niece) who has extraordinary intellectual gifts. It’s a variation on Jodie Foster’s 1991 directorial debut Little Man Tate, with both films examining the challenges of raising a child who is far more advanced than most adults, let alone their peers. Director Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) laces Gifted with many crowd-pleasing elements, but his film eventually fizzles into courtroom-based hokum. It’s also saddled with some woefully underdeveloped (offensively so, in one case) supporting characters.
Frank (Evans) has been doing his best to give Mary (Mckenna Grace) a “normal” upbringing following the death of her mother, who was a genius mathematician. Frank has compromised his own career as a professor of philosophy in order to carry out his late sister’s wishes that Mary not be subjected to the rigors of life in a think tank. Complications arise after Frank enrolls Mary in a public school, where teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate) quickly realizes that this girl is one in a million. Attempts to enroll Mary in a special school are met with resistance from Frank, leading to intervention by Mary’s maternal grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Evelyn believes that letting Mary “act her age” would be a tragic waste.
Aside from some fun in watching Mary solving math problems like a human calculator, Gifted isn’t terribly concerned with her abilities. The plot is driven by the custody battle between Frank and Evelyn. Though Frank is presented as totally selfless, Evelyn introduces an interesting ulterior motive behind his desire to remain Mary’s guardian. Maybe Tom Flynn’s screenplay delved further into this matter, only to have the complexities cut—maybe not. Either way, director Webb goes for easy, manipulative, heartwarming moments instead of presenting Frank in a rounded manner. As Evelyn, Duncan delivers the film’s most incisive performance—Gifted is smart enough to portray Evelyn as a realistic blend of good intentions and obsessive controlling tendencies.
Where Gifted missteps terribly is with Frank’s landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer). In a throwback to an era that should be completely bygone, the Oscar-winning actress suffers the indignity of a grotesque “mammy” role. Perhaps the filmmakers’ idea of “progress’ is allowing Roberta to own the trailer park Frank lives in. But beyond that, Roberta is a completely unrewarded surrogate mother to Mary. “I’d have her every night,” she tells Frank, who asks to drop Mary off at her place when teacher Bonnie becomes a booty call. Roberta is depicted as totally devoted to Mary, but otherwise she’s devoid of any character attributes. Her entire purpose is to serve Frank and Mary.
Speaking of Bonnie, Jenny Slate is given extremely little do to as well. Once her discovery of Mary’s gifts leads to the custody dispute, Bonnie’s purpose in the plot has been fulfilled. But Webb keeps her around in an ill-defined, nearly superfluous role as Frank’s kinda/sorta girlfriend. Frank and Mary’s charming one-eyed cat is actually more important to the story than Bonnie.
At its best, Gifted entertains thanks primarily to likable performances by Evans and especially ten-year-old Mckenna Grace (TV’s Designated Survivor). Evans has long established himself in the Marvel films as one of superherodom’s lowest-key performers, refreshingly earnest as the do-right “Cap” in a milieu often dominated by snark. Here he hunkers down into an even subtler role, effectively disappearing into ‘average joe’ guise. Grace manages to avoid teetering into ‘unbearably cute kid’ status, balancing Mary’s precociousness with prickly ‘don’t mess with me’ defiance.
But again it’s Lindsay Duncan who nearly walks off with the picture, daring viewers to take a side: is Evelyn, in her attempts to foster Mary’s blossoming intellect, a villain or a misunderstood heroine? Unfortunately, the makers of Gifted chose not to answer the central question in their film.
Gifted images: Fox Searchlight Pictures