Gifted Review: Webb’s Emotionally Powerful Child Prodigy Tale
Gifted tells the story of Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), a seven-year-old child prodigy raised by her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) in a small town in Florida. Frank, while struggling with his own issues, wants nothing more than to give Mary a normal life despite her advanced mathematical abilities. Frank sends Mary to a public school where she begins to socialize and make friends with children her own age. However, when the school learns about Mary’s unique skillset, they push Frank to send her to the Oaks, a local school for the gifted. Determined that Mary should remain in public school, Frank’s mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) comes to Florida and launches a custody battle to become Mary’s legal guardian.
Directed by Marc Webb and written by Tom Flynn, Gifted is a heartwarming and emotional tale that pulls on the heartstrings. The story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking but the way that the actors carry the material is what makes Gifted a winner for the most part. The film opens on Frank and Mary arguing about having to school and we immediately learn why Mary feels that way. Mary rolls her eyes as her teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate) teaches her classmates basic math. It is clear this early on that Mary knows a lot more than most children her age but what makes her truly special is her ability to solve mathematical equations. The scene between Mary and Bonnie going back and forth solving math problems is both fascinating and funny.
Mckenna Grace is without question the reason to watch this film. There is also a one-eyed cat named Fred, who is quite the scene stealer but in terms of performance, Grace is hands down the standout. She brings a genuine amount of heart to the film while also proving to the audience that she is, in fact, a child prodigy. There is a lot to be said when a child actor can convey so much emotion in a performance. We see so many adult actors who try but not everyone can achieve it. While I wouldn’t say this performance is as complex as Jacob Tremblay’s performance in ROOM, I do feel that Grace is on the same level as Tremblay in terms of raw emotion and charm. There are several scenes that work so well emotionally because they rely heavily on Grace and she nails each and every one.
While Chris Evans might be a fan favorite for Captain America fans, I have never been wowed by him as an actor. I don’t think Evans is a bad actor but do feel he hasn’t taken on roles that challenge him. With that being said, Gifted is his strongest role to date and one that pushes himself a bit further as an actor. Evans shines as Frank because he shares such amazing chemistry with Grace. Evans conveys some real emotion in this role and as a viewer, you feel for him as the guy who is just trying to do what’s best. The scenes where he is confronted by others about whether or not he is best thing for Mary felt genuine and true to life. Evans performance showcased real uncertainty that I believe any real guardian would have when questioned. I can only hope that Evans continues to take on more roles like this one so we can see him grow as an actor.
As a fan of Jenny Slate, it was nice to see her go against her normal raunchy roles to play Bonnie. I have been a big fan of Slate since Obvious Child and think she is a great comedic actress. However like Evans, Slate hasn’t really pushed herself that much yet as an actress. While this script, in particular, doesn’t give her a whole lot to do, I was happy seeing her playing a character that was a bit more reserved and down to earth than we are used to seeing her play. It also needs to be said that she does have good on-screen chemistry with Evans and you can tell that them working together easily turned into something real. Sadly, it just didn’t last that long in real life.
Octavia Spencer plays Roberta Taylor, a neighbor that lives in the same mobile park community as Frank. I honestly believe that Spencer has this ability to take on any role, no matter how big or small, and make it work. I don’t know how she does it but it always works. Her scenes with Grace work well even though there aren’t that many of them. You can tell they have a bond and that they get one another. Roberta also serves as Frank’s support system in a lot of ways. She works as his encourager but also helps tend to Mary’s needs when Frank needs some time to himself. There is a terrific scene that takes place in a hospital that features all three of them and it’s an incredibly powerful sequence.
My issues with the film all revolve around the character of Evelyn and how things are handled with the character. In terms of the performance, Duncan is just as strong as the rest of the main cast and delivers a solid performance. The film sets up Evelyn as this snooty British woman who knows best. The film spends a good portion of its runtime trying to show her break up the relationship between Mary and Frank because she believes that her plan for Mary is better than Franks. While this works for about 85% off the film, there is a courtroom scene about 70 minutes in that changed everything for me. It is nearly impossible for me to discuss where the issues lie in the film without spoilers so be warned the next few paragraphs will contain spoilers.
We learn about 25 minutes into the film that Evelyn is the mother of Frank and Diane. The character Diane, we never met, but she is Mary’s mother who committed suicide. Throughout the film, there is this mystery as to what happened to Diane and why she killed herself. We learn at the beginning of the custody battle that Diane was a child prodigy like Mary. In the courtroom scene mentioned above, Frank’s lawyer questions Evelyn and it is revealed that Evelyn tried to keep Diane away from other people and live life as a hermit. Evelyn didn’t allow Diane to socialize, go to school, or do anything fun at all. It is revealed shortly afterward that Diane fell in love and ran away with a guy named Paul. Evelyn calls the cops on Paul and reports he kidnapped Diane which I would assume lead to his arrest.
After this scene, we learn that Frank’s lawyer believes that Mary should go to a foster home where he can come visit her weekly. Frank doesn’t want to do this but is advised by his lawyer that it’s the best course of action otherwise Evelyn will win the custody battle. In a very emotional goodbye, Frank leaves Mary with her new court ordered and approved foster parents. A few scenes later, we learn that Evelyn has moved into the foster parents guest home and is controlling Mary’s life and has hired private tutors to come to the house to educated her as part of her plan.
Frank goes to the foster parent’s home to confront Evelyn about her actions. It is during this scene where it is revealed that Diane lived her entire life as a recluse and was not given any other option but to solve impossible mathematic equations. Frank reveals that he has a completed proof that Diane gave him before she died. Frank mentions that Diane ultimately killed herself because she felt she didn’t have a purpose after she completed the proof. When this was revealed, I felt like the story became so incredibly convoluted for no real reason at all. What makes it worse is that if Frank had this as evidence with him the whole time, why didn’t he reveal this it to the court so that Mary would never have to be taken away in the first place.
So to summarize, Evelyn lied in a court of law, illegally deceived two people to lie about taking care of Mary when they had no intention to do so and is responsible for the death of her own daughter. All these things clearly prove that Evelyn is not only a bad parent but also a complete and total manipulator that belongs behind bars. So someone please explain to me that with all that being revealed, why does this film end with Frank giving Diane’s proof to Evelyn and letting her go on her merry way and have a happy ending. It makes no sense at all and left me floored and not in a good way. I get forgive and forget but wow this woman was responsible for her own daughter’s death and wanted to do the same thing to her granddaughter. She is a horrible and awful person that should be held accountable for her actions yet the script sugarcoats everything in the last 5-10 minutes.
All negatives aside, I would be lying if I wasn’t emotionally invested in the story and characters throughout the first 90% of the film. I think the cop-out ending does ruin it and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I think the ending of this film is Collateral Beauty level bad where there are no repercussions for Evelyn’s actions and behavior. If this film wasn’t so grounded in reality, I could give it a pass like I did with Collateral Beauty but this film feels far too authentic to give the ending a pass like that. I will say that before the ending, I would have given this film like a 8 or 8.5 but as it stands, my rating goes down to a 7 which is still probably way too generous considering how problematic the film is. Regardless of its shortcomings, I still recommend it for the incredible performances and the engaging yet cliched story. Gifted is a perfect example of how great performances can ultimately save a film from quickly becoming forgettable made for television movie.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s final rating for Gifted is a 7 out of 10.