If there’s anything that can be said about director Marc Webb, it’s that he certainly doesn’t pigeonhole himself, at least in terms of films. After the massive success that was “500 Days of Summer” back in 2009, the only other movies he has done are “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel. “Gifted,” his latest cinematic enterprise, is notable in that it isn’t any sort of return to form, nor is it a deviation from Webb’s habits as a director. Instead, it’s a heartwarming story with an aftertaste of resumé fodder.
“Gifted” follows Frank (Chris Evans), a boat mechanic in Florida, and his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace), a six-year-old genius who can solve incredibly complicated calculus problems before even starting first grade. Almost everyone around her, including her teacher (Jenny Slate), her principal (Elizabeth Marvel) and even her neighbor (Octavia Spencer) insists she should go to a more advanced school that knows how to deal with “gifted” children, but Frank is adamant that she should go to a normal school and have a normal childhood.
Things come to a head when Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), a strict British mathematician and an absent mother to Frank and his sister, comes to Florida to argue that Mary should live with her in Massachusetts – though Evelyn seems to have a hidden motive for this. Now fighting over his niece against his mother in court, Frank must decide whether to let go of Mary or try his best to give her a normal life.
The narrative of “Gifted” is frustrating, to say the least. The entire film is set up so that audiences are practically forced to side with Frank – who wouldn’t want their child to have a normal childhood instead of being thrown into this unknown, adult territory? Evelyn’s presentation as a typical, cold British villain especially reinforces this, and the few moments in the movie that humanize Evelyn or give any sort of reasoning as to why she’d like to keep Mary fall completely flat in the face of this. In fact, when Evelyn’s “hidden motive” is revealed, anything that could even have remotely made viewers care about her is completely ignored.
Frank insists that having a happy, normal childhood and going to a school for “gifted” children are mutually exclusive, and it is especially frustrating. Frank’s opinion that Mary should stay in a regular school in order to lead the other kids by example both in terms of intelligence and morals seem like pure “what-if” fantasy as opposed to actually putting Mary in an environment that’ll challenge her and allow her to grow. In short, once again we have Evans playing a character who believes his views on life and on how people should act are law, and once again the other side is presented as being so inconsiderate and borderline villainous that viewers unfairly have to agree with him — sound familiar?
Despite the overly frustrating characterization, the main cast’s performances manage to get the point across with a certain kind of aplomb. If Evans’ character really warms your heart (or frustrates you, as he should), it is because his acting is some of the best he has done since, well, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Grace’s role as a sarcastic, super intelligent six-year-old is absolutely incredible, making her the only character in this entire debacle worth caring about – which, of course, is the point of the whole movie. It’s a shame that the story is presented almost entirely from Frank’s point of view, since any sequence with Mary showing off her math smarts is absolutely more interesting to watch than a frustrated dad-uncle whining about what he thinks a “normal” life should be. And despite the majority of her scenes painting her as a straight-up villain, Duncan’s Evelyn shines in the scenes that show the raw emotion behind this supposed villainy – she cares, but in her own way.
The same sort of talent cannot be expected or said of the supporting cast. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer’s sheer acting talent is absolutely wasted in “Gifted” – her character, who is supposedly Mary’s only friend besides Frank, is of practically no importance to the plot whatsoever other than being another voice insisting that Mary go to the gifted school. Jenny Slate is similarly misused – her character, Mary’s teacher Bonnie, should be a crucial character in the argument of where Mary should study, but instead becomes the focus of a ridiculously frustrating romantic arc and practically nothing more.
If the word “frustrating” has been overused over the course of this review, it is because that is what “Gifted” is: absolutely frustrating, frustrating, frustrating. It tries its hardest to be a heartwarmer but instead becomes an annoying, schlocky story. You won’t need to do the math to tell that “Gifted” doesn’t really add up.