Gifted, Marc Webb’s new custody battle drama, is around 75% Hallmark movie, 25% shots of Chris Evans pensively staring into the middle distance, conjuring up his best “I’m emotionally conflicted” facial expression while others around him happily prattle on about this or that. It is a film whose plot oddly resembles a mash-up of I Am Sam, Big Daddy and Good Will Hunting, and is sorely lacking in several areas, particularly during its overly manipulative final act. Yet you just might find yourself giving in to all the feels or at least refraining from criticizing too much because Gifted is undeniably well-meaning and manages to coast by on the irresistible charm of the talented young actress (Mckenna Grace) at the heart of the story as well as Evans’ innate likability, if not wide emotional range.
The story: A Florida boat repairman named Frank (Evans, all blue collar because, lookie, he has a beard and sometimes wears an ever-so-slightly dirty white shirt) wants his young niece Mary (Grace), who he has raised and homeschooled since she was a baby, to have better social skills. So, he enrolls her in the local grade school, a decision which immediately blows up in his face when she proves incapable of hiding the fact that she’s a math prodigy. It’s not new information to either of them (nor to their concerned neighbor played by Octavia Spencer), but he somehow thought she might be able to pretend to be normal. When the principal offers to send Mary to a special school for the gifted with a full scholarship Frank flatly refuses since he had a front row seat to that kind of childhood when his similarly gifted sister was turned into a one-person thinktank by their overzealous mother (Lyndsay Duncan). The result was his sister growing up to become an emotionally troubled, socially awkward adult who committed suicide.
Frank is understandably reluctant to start Mary on a similar path, but all of the educators around him cannot fathom the notion of not allowing Mary to achieve her full potential simply because her uncle wants to pretend she’s a normal kid when she so clearly isn’t. So, Frank’s mom is called in to sue for custody. She’s a talented mathematician in her own right who abandoned her career for motherhood and then vicariously lived through her daughter. Now she aims to do so again with her granddaughter, but battling her own son to make it happen brings her no joy.
Cue up the courtroom scenes and tears. Cue up an adorable little kid being taken away while calling back, “But I wipe my own ass. I wipe my own ass.”
Wait. Scratch that last part. I was thinking of Big Daddy there for a second. “But I wipe my own ass” is most certainly not a phrase you’ll hear in Gifted nor is there ever quite the Capracorn “this is how my niece has taught me to be a better person” speech you’d expect Evans to deliver from the witness stand. In fact, Gifted isn’t quite the white-man-child-has-to-grow-up-and-get-his-shit-together drama you might expect. It really is just a movie about the immense love an uncle has for his niece and his determination to do what he thinks is the best thing for her, even if he’s not always 100% what that is.
Marc Webb, making a much-needed return to indie film after The Amazing Spider-Man 2, has no delusions of aspiring to anything greater than that with Gifted. As he told Collider:
I don’t think it’s the kind of movie that’s a cinematic masterpiece, necessarily. It’s not particularly thematically ambitious, but the heart of it is good and warm, and it’s important to reinforce the idea that our family is not necessarily the one that we’re born into. When that’s reinforced in the stories we tell, it feels like a really powerful and important thing. It felt really good to get behind that. Having come off of big movies, I wanted to do something that was refreshing and uncomplicated, and that’s what this provided.
In pursuit of such simple, but noble goals, Webb has produced a movie which is a bit shabby on the edges. Frank’s relationship with Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) doesn’t add much beyond one funny “morning after” scene as well as the answer to the following trivia question: What movie did social media darlings Chris Evans and Jenny Slate make together before starting their year-long relationship? To be fair, it’s not hard to see why the two ended up dating. They have fantastic chemistry; Gifted doesn’t use that to its full advantage, though.
Octavia Spencer is luminescent as always but could have done this paper-thin role in her sleep. Mackenna Grace, so astonishingly natural and non-kid actor-like as Mary, falls out of the story for large stretches in the final third, and the film suffers from her absence. Evans never quite turns the corner into the fully convincing nuanced performance he’s going for.
But Webb isn’t wrong. At its heart, Gifted is good and warm, the result of a group of people getting together to try to put something positive out into the world – naked sentiment, predictable drama, but heartwarming emotions exhibited by characters worth caring about. It’s all a bit on the corny side, but it is also just as refreshingly uncomplicated as Webb wanted.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Captain America makes for an okay uncle, but Mackenna Grace steals the show in the flawed, but endearing Gifted.