Gifted is the kind of film that begins one way and ends in another. It sets itself up to be a good enough film; one about the pressures of upholding family legacy, the struggle of being different in a world where a child genius is not normal, and of learning compassion. The film, directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man, (500) Days of Summer), has all the ingredients of being an uplifting film, and it most definitely has its moments. However, the film feels wooden despite its attempts to be heartfelt and deep. Somewhere along the line, the film falters and manipulates the audience into caring right before an arbitrary plot device conveniently alters the movie’s trajectory.
Frank Adler (Chris Evans) fixes boats and takes care of his seven-year-old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace). Having moved from Boston to Florida after the death of Mary’s mother, Diane, Frank finally enrolls Mary into a regular elementary school after having been home-schooled. Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), immediately recognizes that Mary is far and away ahead of the rest of her classmates in math and can solve really hard equations (that adults are still trying to crack) in just a few minutes. Not before long, Frank’s mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) files for legal custody of Mary, believing that taking her back to Boston and having her focus solely on math is in her best interests.
It’s hard to ascertain what the film is trying to convey. Is it about Mary being able to maintain a normal life because she needs to learn how to interact with people her age? Is it about compassion and the learning of a balanced lifestyle? Or is it simply a custody battle over who is more befit to serve as a guardian to a gifted child? Gifted swings from one extreme to another and never quite finds its balance until the very end of the film, but it comes at the cost of the plot development. It never becomes clear why Frank quits his job as a professor to fix boats and, while he offers love to Mary, his lifestyle is wildly different than what Evelyn is willing to offer, but for the longest time it doesn’t seem like Frank is willing to change until he is forced to do so. Even Mary’s genius is very much more about everyone else except her, which does her character a disservice.
Lindsay Duncan’s character comes across as the unyielding, strict mother who has convinced herself that she wants what’s best for her granddaughter. She has moments of vulnerability and layers to her personality, but by the end of the film, it’s clear that her attempts at trying to do what’s best for Mary is not more important than other things. Her final actions belie any of the multi-dimensional aspects of her character and any sympathy garnered is quickly and easily lost in the span of moments. When Chris Evans’ Frank gives her with what she ultimately wants, it devalues everything that was presented prior to that moment. Gifted plays with our emotions and uses this as an advantage for key moments later in the film. But the fact that the film turns into more of a custody hearing renders Mary’s genius an afterthought in many ways. The far too convenient plot device also regresses a lot of the character development.
Evans is morose throughout the film. It’s almost like he’s afraid to let himself be happy and the bright spots in the movie are his interactions with the young McKenna Grace. Jenny Slate as Bonnie starts off as someone who could also genuinely interact with Mary, but her role is diminished as the film goes on and the court proceedings take over the film. This isn’t to say, however, that Gifted isn’t without its strengths. The cast is wonderful, although I really do wish they’d used Octavia Spencer to her full potential, and there are instances when the movie breaks free of its stuffed plot to reveal beautiful moments and conversation. But the subtlety and beauty of these fleeting moments are lost amid the heavy plot and the by-the-book and underwhelming way the film goes about everything.