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Movies are full of exceptionally-talented people whose lives are a mix of triumphs and tragedies, young and old who cope with the struggles of being different. From mathematics to music to everything in-between, these are stories of hardship and isolation, heartbreak and inspiration, each, in their own way, hoping to cull the sympathies of those watching.
With Gifted, there is much that will be familiar, a story that follows a tried and true path laid down by those before it, clinging pretty rigidly to many standards that have proven successful before. That’s not to say there aren’t things that don’t work. The relationships at play are some of the strongest aspects, and a terrific performance by a bright young talent makes for some good moments.
We meet Frank (Chris Evans), a boat repairman living in Florida and raising his seven-year-old niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a child with genius-level math skills who doesn’t quite fit in with other children. Her mother passed a few years earlier and Frank has done his best to give her a good life, protecting her from the label she is sure to have as an adult. When she enters school anyway, her abilities quickly catch the attention of her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), who through the school, contacts her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), and it’s not long before a custody battle begins, putting the child at the center of a fight that tries to paint Frank as unfit.
Directed by Marc Webb, perhaps best known for The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 and the cult classic 500 Days of Summer, Gifted is a quiet and introspective film that plays into many of the tropes of the genre while steering clear of many expectations, including the relationship between Frank and Evelyn, which resists the temptation to use heavy histrionics and keeps the battle one of strong personalities and convictions rather than too much animosity. It is instead a fight of provisions, where Evelyn’s wealthy background could give Mary the best in educational opportunities while Frank’s decidedly low-key rural lifestyle seems unstable. For those familiar with Jodie Foster‘s 1991 child prodigy film Little Man Tate, some of this will strike a chord, even as difference in context lead them to similar conclusions.
Issues arise though as the film strips away some of the emotional highs with lengthy courtroom theatrics that work to divide and build walls with legalities rather than heart, keeping Evelyn, who is an uncharacteristically three-dimensional player in this genre more of a cliché than the genuine caregiver she starts as. Bonnie also is under used, Slate a great talent that ends up a perfunctory bookend, disappearing for long stretches of the runtime. And while the focus is on little Mary, developing these other characters more would have helped better shape the conflicts the girl is part of.
That said, Evans is really good, laid back and comfortable in a mature and often powerfully-affecting performance that is a far cry from what fans of his work in the Marvel films may expect. He is subtle and gentle and often lets his expressive face speak more than his words, allowing Webb to frame him in long moments of stillness that ring true throughout. A moment in a hospital, while carefully-contrived, is nonetheless one of the best moments in the film and a perfectly-restrained Evans is entirely why these moments works at all.
Gifted is a film of manipulations, but there isn’t a single person watching who doesn’t know that going in. To break from the formula would feel like a betrayal, and so to make it work at all, it must do what it must as well as it can, and for the most part, it truly does. A rarity perhaps in a time of explosive, visual-effects-laden blockbusters, this quiet little family movie is a solid counter to the crush of noise and lights playing elsewhere.
Movie description: Gifted is a 2017 drama about an exceptional child prodigy who comes to live with her protective uncle, who wants to try and allow her to live a normal life.
Director(s): Marc Webb
Actor(s): Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan
Genre: Family, Drama