GIFTED: It’s Not Easy Raising A Genius
Gifted is grounded and gritty, on a mission to make you laugh, make you cry, make you root for the good guys while booing for the bad.
Filmmaker Marc Webb’s career rises like a phoenix from the ashes of success with Gifted, a classically-themed weepie about a child custody suit with indie sensibilities – at least that’s the plan. Webb exploded as a critics’ darling with (500) Days of Summer, and then almost as rapidly found himself labeled sellout-of-the-month with the big-budget, 3D, studio superhero reboot The Amazing Spider-Man. The inevitable sequel only exacerbated the situation.
The first Spider-Man reboot was an effective, paint-by-numbers exercise that benefited substantially from Webb’s individual vision. That vision was swallowed whole by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a chaotic, CGI bad acid trip that would have left John Ford or Stanley Kubrick quivering on the PTSD ward. For better or worse, the much smaller scale Gifted is certainly a conventionally structured Hollywood story. Next to the Spider-Man reboots, though, it’s grounded and gritty. Despite the modest budget and small scale, Gifted is a Hollywood movie – make no mistake about it.
Post-Modernist Kramer vs. Kramer
Aspects of Kramer vs. Kramer and Good Will Hunting abound within Gifted, as do outright clichés, such as Frank having to carry a self-imposed burden of guilt for his sister’s suicide. Nonetheless, Webb’s capable direction, which uses none of the cinematic flash and gimmickry that distinguished (500) Days of Summer, and sincere performances carry the story through three-hankie moments that would sink some movies.
Chris Evans, Marvel Studios’ Captain America, plays Frank Adler, the Hollywood version of a brooding Hemingwayesque loner living in Florida, eking out a living as a freelance boat mechanic while raising his niece Mary (McKenna Grace) after the suicide of his sister. Thing is, Frank’s actually a former college professor from Boston, and apparently comes from a long line of major intellects. Mary is a mathematical genius on an order that would qualify her for membership in the X-Men.
Frank has been home-schooling Mary, which is fine with her since she insists that she finds children her own age boring. Her only other friend is neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who provides Mary’s life with a much-needed element of normalcy. When Frank decides to enroll Mary in a local elementary school so that she’ll have some normal growing up experiences with other children, we can’t help wondering how a guy this bright could make so many mistakes at once.
It’s clear that there are no court orders or testamentary guardianship requests supporting Frank’s custody of Mary, and there’s no way a kid with an IQ like this is going to fly under the radar. When her new teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) discovers Mary’s extraordinary abilities (which takes about a minute and a half), she brings them to the attention of the school’s principal (Elizabeth Marvel), who promptly offers Frank the opportunity for a full ride for Mary at a nearby Hogwarts for the super-gifted.
Frank refuses, the principal’s ego is stung, and she starts doing some digging, setting up Gifted as a post-modernist Kramer vs. Kramer custody battle. Before you can say “Wicked Witch of the West,” Frank’s estranged mother, beautifully realized by an especially haughty Lindsay Duncan, swoops in on her broomstick to challenge Frank, not just for legal and physical custody of Mary, but for custody of her soul as well.
The Good and The Bad
The movie is at its worst in the thankfully brief courtroom scenes. Writer Tom Flynn’s screenplay, which frequently provides welcome twists and surprises elsewhere, is about as engaging as a Law & Order marathon with extra commercial breaks when Gifted ventures into the courtroom. A technical legal advisor is credited, but there’s little proof anyone listened to him, assuming he wasn’t locked in the closet during the entire production. It is, for the record, possible to make an entertaining movie and get the law right. Trial lawyers love My Cousin Vinny.
Gifted is at its best when the talented cast plays against each other outside of the courtroom. The scenes between Frank and Mary are often funny, often moving, but the scenes between Frank and his estranged mother are occasionally electrifying. Evelyn is that rarest of movie villains, a villain who doesn’t know they’re a villain.
Having, in her own view, thrown away her own academic career to marry and raise children, Evelyn lives through the triumphs of her children, and no, she doesn’t see rebuilding a boat engine as a triumph. And she genuinely believes that Mary’s genius needs to be shared with the world. A movie like this, to some degree, cannot be better than its villain, and she serves the movie well. Frank blames her for his sister’s suicide, but it’s here that Flynn’s script really shines, saving a particularly shattering reveal for late in the game.
Chris Evans Looks Like A Star Even With Dirty Fingernails
There really isn’t a way to make Chris Evans not look like a movie star, even with dirty fingernails. That’s not his fault of course – though the problem has only been exacerbated since acquiring Captain America’s physique. Evans takes the role seriously and plays his college professor-turned-boat mechanic with a bemused and not inappropriately ironic intellectual detachment.
Grease-stained jeans and inadequately trimmed facial hair or not though, the man not only looks like a movie star, but moves with some of the golden age masculine grace and elegance of the Clark Gables or Gary Coopers. It could simply be argued that the man is simply good at his job. Where would movies be if movie stars were prohibited from taking on roles where they actually got to act? Possibly more believable, but who actually wants that?
McKenna Grace Is Sweet Without Being Syrupy
In many ways, though, the movie ultimately rises or falls on the young shoulders of McKenna Grace. She seems to have evaded the assembly line of unnerving, preternaturally precocious juvenile androids that populate so many Hollywood productions. Sorry, but Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are not a post-Strasberg acting method.
McKenna Grace, with her two front teeth missing and inquiring, appraising eyes, is sweet without being syrupy, reminding one if anything of Drew Barrymore in E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and answering in the affirmative the nagging question of whether anyone but Spielberg can find these kids. When Mary complains that children her own age bore her, you feel her alienation and you understand how apart she is – genius has already exacted a cruel toll on her young life.
Octavia Spencer isn’t in the movie enough, and quite frankly she could have gotten away with phoning this one in. She didn’t, and her moments, sparse though may be, are memorable.
Pleasantly straightforward, Gifted plucks at your heartstrings and lets you know exactly what it’s up to. That commendable transparency is one of its strongest virtues. This isn’t a movie that is out to surprise you, beyond a couple of plot twists to keep you guessing. It’s out to make you laugh, make you cry, make you root for the good guys and boo the bad guys. Mission accomplished.
What do you think? Is Gifted a comeback movie for Marc Webb? Did he need one? Tell us what you thought in the comments below!
Gifted was released for limited viewing in the United States on April 7th, 2017 and will be released in the UK on June 16, 2017. For all international released dates, see here.
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