MOVIE REVIEW: Gifted
“GIFTED”-- 3 STARS
Aside from any cinematic cliches present, there is an exemplary central message the new film “Gifted” gets utterly and perfectly right in both its actions and its words. As an elementary school educator, it is one I equally and personally champion every single day. The notion is worth leading with one of this website’s signature life lessons.
LESSON #1: LET KIDS BE KIDS-- Allow “Gifted” or this school teacher right here tell you and show you that too much academic pressure is placed on school-aged children these days. They take too many high-stakes tests and spend too many hours doing rote and mindless homework. College prep can start in high school, but leave it off of seven-year-olds. Even geniuses can cultivate being well-rounded. Let them go outside, skin a few knees, build something, and find activities they enjoy. Feed those brains with experiences and not just book-based knowledge. Need ideas? Here’s just one list of many things to do instead of homework.
In “Gifted,” the kid in question is flaxen-haired first grader Mary Adler, played with youthful gumption by TV actress Mckenna Grace. She has been raised by her uncle Frank Adler (the headlining Chris Evans) in a central Florida trailer park since she was six months old after the shocking suicide death of her mother. When Frank stepped in to care for his niece, he walked away from a career as a college professor of philosophy in Boston in favor of a simpler and slower lifestyle. He now makes ends meet as a local handyman and barfly, one flatly identified by observant women as the "quiet, damaged type."
Frank’s late sister was an elite mathematician obsessively pushed towards academic greatness most of her life by her overbearing mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, recently of “Birdman” and “About Time”). Sure enough, Mary is showing the same, if not greater, intellectual capability for mathematics. Proverbially eating advanced algebra and calculus for breakfast next to cereal and milk through her missing front teeth, she is unchallenged, impulsive, and runs circles around her school classmates and even her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate).
Frank denies the school administration’s arranged scholarship offer to send Mary to a nearby gifted school. He is adamant that his sister would have wished for Mary to have a grounded and compassionate childhood, one where she progresses socially through school with kids her own age, free from the rigors and pressures she faced. This course sparks an impassioned custody battle for Mary between Frank and Evelyn.
This film presents the closest Chris Evans has come yet to playing his age (35) and a parental-like role. Evans channels his always engaging charisma into a role requiring his stoicism to be used for brevity rather than heroism. It’s an emotional and endearing breath of fresh air. “Gifted” reminds us there is a confident and assured actor underneath that chiseled superhero exterior. Holding both his hand and our own, Mckenna Grace will make off with your heart in short order. The two share superb and contagious chemistry, boosted by an extra little sprinkle of charm from underused Oscar winner Octavia Spencer in a small supporting role.
Tom Flynn’s rescued script from the 2014 Hollywood Black List does falter with two maddening tropes that cannot be ignored. First, putting a hunk like Chris Evans in a film unfortunately demands an unnecessary and mildly preposterous love interest that demeans the talent of Jenny Slate. She (and we) deserved better. Second, if you’ve seen one grandstanding or speechifying movie courtroom scene with shouting or tears, you’ve seen them all. This story is markedly better when it is out of the courtroom or the bedroom and showcasing the bond of memories being made and principles being built by an impressionable child and her dutiful guardian.
What saves these cliches from turning the beachfront tonic of “Gifted” entirely into syrupy grenadine is the steady guidance of director Marc Webb. “Gifted” is a return to smaller domestic fare for the “(500) Days of Summer” filmmaker after steering two big budget “Amazing Spider-Man” films. This is his ideal directorial speed. Nothing tonally is laid on too thick, from Stuart Dryburgh’s lens to soak in the Savannah shooting locations to Rob Simonsen’s unobtrusive musical score. Those and other artistic elements could have really overplayed the melodrama but did not. The importance of “Gifted” was the stance of its message, and Webb kept it on point, earned the dramatic heft, and avoided full-on preaching.
LESSON #2: KEEP FAMILY BUSINESS OUT OF COURT-- Nothing good comes from airing family grievances in court. It becomes embarrassing, contentious, and costs everyone money, dignity, and stress. Settle your differences and find compromises without lawyers. That is a far better route when it comes to playing the “best interests of the child” card versus supposedly "denying potential."
LESSON #3: YOU WILL ALWAYS DOUBT YOURSELF AS A PARENT OR A GUARDIAN-- The most important thing a person can do in their life is raise a child. It is a path of selfless sacrifice requiring putting others before yourself. You’re never ready for it, and you will inevitably make countless mistakes. The uncertainty and fear is normal. Hell, you’re not doing it right if you don’t feel those things.