(2017—Director: Marc Webb)
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Parenthood is difficult, especially on where a parent should steer their young children, given the talents they have begun to show. Do parents raise their children in a conventional way or do they throttle them towards the first talent they recognize or one that runs in the family? Is the correct answer somewhere in the middle, especially when involving a child of extraordinary talent? Such a question lies at the heart of Gifted, the fourth film by director Marc Webb and his first since Columbia Pictures’ pair of Amazing Spider-Man films.
In a small Florida coastal town, freelance boat repairman Frank Adler (Chris Evans) raises his precocious seven-year-old niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace). Despite her resistance, Frank insists in placing her in a normal elementary school, where—on her first day—she reveals herself as a math prodigy to her teacher (Jenny Slate). The school’s principal soon meets with Frank to discuss sending Mary to a special institution. Frank refuses, explaining that his late sister wished that her daughter be raised like a normal child. As it turns out, Mary’s mother was an extraordinary mathematician who had committed suicide shortly after Mary’s birth. Frank and his late sister’s estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) arrives to warn Frank that she’ll seek to gain custody of Mary through the courts, especially since his sister never specified in writing for Frank to raise Mary. From there, the matter is left to the court to either have Mary grow up with her uncle as an ordinary girl with friends her age or to have her grandmother watch her rise up to the higher tiers of the mathematics community and finish her late mother’s work.
Compared to his earlier three features, Gifted comes off like director Marc Webb’s return to filmmaking basics—a bit of a shame, since the film might have benefited from techniques similar to those in his 2009 debut (500) Days of Summer to spice up the screen. Instead, director Webb—perhaps to distance himself from the chaos of The Amazing Spider-Man films—serves as more of a steady guide for the acting to take center-stage. Chris Evans, taking a break from playing Captain America, performs solidly as single father-figure Frank. Evans’ turn as the story’s emotional backbone adds to his occasional but welcome treks into bold territories of cinema that include high concept sci-fi (2007’s Sunshine and 2013’s Snowpiercer), other comic medium properties (2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and making his directorial debut with 2014’s Before We Go.
Opposite Chris Evans’ Frank, award-winning Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan (the theatre critic in 2014’s Birdman) controls her poise and cold exterior to impressive effect as Evelyn. Ms. Duncan’s Evelyn never comes off as inherently bereft of maternal compassion, as demonstrated during a memorable courtroom scene in which Frank’s lawyer forces her to recall how she isolated Mary’s late mother to studying mathematics in her formative years, even to the point of sabotaging her first serious relationship with a young man who had a crush on her. Elsewhere, Jenny Slate’s role as Mary’s teacher starts off promising, but then ends up acting merely as a plot device for the further development of Frank and Mary’s relationship and, later on, to light the spark that leads to the film’s final confrontation. Finally, Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Shack) may not add as much to the story as the trailer suggested, but her welcoming presence as the caretaker of Frank and Mary’s residential community and Mary’s weekend babysitter contrasts well with Lindsay Duncan’s Evelyn.
Naturally, much of the focus on Gifted will gravitate towards Mckenna Grace’s impressive child performance as young Mary, in which she displays maturity and joy while also providing memorable smiles, glares, and lines. The film, however, struggles to bring the audience fully into her perspective, for which director Marc Webb could’ve incorporated creative camera perspectives or employed Ms. Grace to record a voiceover. Her noticeable absence during the riveting courtroom scenes pitting Frank against Evelyn doesn’t help and, as such, Ms. Grace simply joins a list of relatively strong child performances and not alongside turns like that of Jacob Tremblay from 2015’s Room.
One noteworthy negative I have with Gifted involves two scenes. At the time of his sister’s suicide, Chris Evans’ character was a philosophy professor at a distinguished university. As a student in JPCatholic’s Biblical Theology Masters program, it annoyed me when Frank couldn’t answer Mary’s questions about God’s existence in one scene, yet is willing in a later scene to toss Mary a copy of Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method as though Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas never existed. Such are the habits of modern philosophers, I suppose.
Gifted is director Marc Webb’s back-to-basics project. Some creative playfulness in its execution à la (500) Days of Summer would’ve made Gifted dazzle more consistently, but the overall film assures me that the filmmaker intrigued with the dynamics of human relationships managed to survive past the dual comic book trial and can still deliver poignant films about the complex dynamics of human relationships. I’m eager to see where Marc Webb takes us next.