Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Written by Tom Flynn
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Michael Kendall Kaplan, John M. Jackson, Glenn Plummer and more
Grade: Three stars
I’m not sure why someone decided to make a Hallmark-style movie as classy, serious and realistic as possible, but I certainly don’t mind it.
“Gifted,” which opened at the Megaplex 14 in Centerville this past Monday as well as other select locations around the state, has a Hallmark heart filtered through indie movie sensibilities. Propelled by fantastic acting on the part of both Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace, the movie turns a classic TV-movie-of-the-week story into a sweet, honest, and at times heart-wrenching look at what it takes to raise a child.
The movie starts with Evans’ character, Frank Adler, pushing his niece, Mary, played by Grace, out the door to her first day at a new school. She wants to stay home and have him keep homeschooling her, and we soon find out the reason why he can’t is because the kid is a certified math genius, enough to get the attention of both her teacher and principal. Evans’ character, however, says no to the gifted program they offer. He wants her have the normal life his sister – Mary’s mom – was denied, which means normal schools. When his math-obsessed mother gets involved, however, it sparks a custody battle that might break the family apart completely.
This movie definitely utilizes some of the most common tropes for this story, though it handles them with more balance and honesty than is normally found in the genre. The characters are far from perfect stereotypes, allowed to show a full range of emotions, and sometimes make really dumb decisions for very human, recognizable reasons. The ending is predictable for anyone at all familiar with this type of story, since the only way to avoid it would be turning the entire thing into a flat-out tragedy.
And, unlike most fictional accounts of geniuses, “Gifted” tries surprisingly hard not to do that. The story of Mary’s mother is almost textbook tortured genius – though some of that torture comes from a very specific direction – but in Mary the brusqueness of intellectual superiority is combined with a surprising sweetness. She takes joy in simple everyday things, including lip-syncing with a beloved neighbor, and makes it clear that even geniuses can be happy. Grace is wonderful with the character, always finding the character’s bright spark even when she’s at her most frustrating.
Evans is excellent throughout, a tired man thrown into the deep end who’s been working off his instincts for years. He truly agonizes over whether he’s doing right by his super-genius niece, and though it’s never specifically mentioned Evans’ face suggests more than once that he’s remembering moments when his sister struggled. He sometimes mourns what he’s given up by raising a kid – plenty of actual parents have – but Evans’ performance makes it clear that Frank’s love for Mary is never in doubt.
Together, the two of them are the heart and soul of the movie. Their interactions have a heaping dose of sass, often as not, but it’s clear in every word they say how much they love, trust and matter to each other. Octavia Specer is a wonderful grace note as Roberta, a neighbor who watches Mary sometimes and deeply loves the little girl. She’s both the angel and devil on Frank’s shoulder, and offers a poignant look at how fragile found family can sometimes be.
There are, unfortunately, some issues with the film. The dramatic conclusion clings way too tightly to some of the tropes that the rest of the movie avoids, and there are a ton of language issues with the movie (which, unfortunately, is likely to alienate the exact same crowd who would enjoy this movie the most).
The movie isn’t all sweetness and light, but its heart is good and full of love. I’m not entirely sure why Hollywood bothered with it, but it’s definitely worth watching.