Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Marc Webb
Running Time: 101 mins
Synopsis: Frank Adler (Evans) is a single man raising his young niece Mary (Grace), who just so happens to be an intensely intelligent child prodigy. Intent on giving her a normal childhood, he enrols her at a local school. However when her absent grandmother returns she is determined that Mary needs to capitalise on her smarts, in turn causing tensions between Frank and the young charge.
Being able to portray earnestness and wholesome emotions without the need to sentimentalise takes a whole lot of confidence, performances of well judged optimism and an incisive script. It marks the difference between say The Notebook and all the subsequent Nicolas Sparks films with their cloying melodrama. Gifted is, however, a different sort of romance. One that sketches out a relationship rarely seen in cinema, that of an uncle and his niece, and one that hones closer to the craft of The Notebook in smarts, tears and humour.
We even have the token quietly brooding hunk, this time it is Captain America himself Chris Evans. Although it is a sign of the films’ reach for realism that we are saved from the obligatory topless shot. Playing Frank, a man forced to care for his young niece after his super-genius sister takes her own life unexpectedly. Living a low-key existence in sunny Florida, with only the kindly warm Octavia Spencer (can she ever be anything less) for outside company as his landlady. The film establishes the charming dynamic between uncle and niece swiftly in an opening sequence filled with little touches and comedic asides. Most, surprisingly, are delivered by the delightful Mckenna Grace as Mary. You see, this is her first day at an actual everyday school after years of home studying. Only 7 years old but evidently blessed with a fierce intelligence Mary bellows against having to face the no doubt stupid peers who await.
Straight off we witness the predominant theme Gifted is focusing on. The battle between how important brains and focus are over having a so called ‘normal’ life filled with friends and experiences. It is a vital idea that can stretch across multiple facets, particularly in how career can sometimes trump slowing down and smelling the flowers (a pat way of putting it I know but YOLO seemed the wrong thing to feature in a review). Building these ideas into the story of a gifted child and the challenges those around her face is a smart choice, albeit one that doesn’t truly come into focus until the arrival of Frank’s absent mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Before this point Franks major challenge lies in getting Mary to blend in with her fellow students. Mckenna Grace is fantastic here as she conveys a weary bluntness to her peers with a nice sideline in withering put-downs, all the while never coming across as a precocious brat. It is a performance far beyond what her years would suggest.
This early portion also introduces us to Mary’s teacher Bonnie, played with quiet assertiveness and playful shyness by Jenny Slate. Seeing the potential in Mary, it is through Bonnie that the pain of Frank’s past is revealed. A little clunky it may be, revelation via internet search, but it helps that upon confronting the aloof Frank they break down each others barriers with an easygoing chemistry. Thankfully romance is kept subtly in the background once Evelyn arrives.
Her arrival causes familial tensions to lead the fray. Strained from long ago Frank and Evelyn immediately go to battle over how best to raise Mary. A domineering powerfully persistent woman, Evelyn attempts to dazzle the little girl with expensive pianos and a glimpse at what a world class school can offer. It becomes clear that her motivations lie beyond what is best for Mary, brief hints at an abandonment of her own promising career in order to raise a family offer clarity, but it is in the relationship with Mary’s mother that the real problems lie. Nicely sketched out in conversations with Frank as well as her nostalgic recollections to Mary, the mother/daughter connection between them was clearly one fraught with anger, resentment, affection and painful compromise. Smartly the script by relative newbie Tom Flynn uses this to make Evelyn more than just the token villain coming up against Frank. Even during the dramatic court appearances, as they battle for Mary’s future, there is an ebb and flow to each of their cases that moves audiences allegiances consistently. Don’t get me wrong the film roots more heavily for Frank, but even at her most bile-inducing best Duncan still manages to elicit a touch of sympathy. A late film revelation also provides a chance for some deeply emotional catharsis which she grabs hold of effectively and movingly.
The power of Gifted lies most strongly at the feet of Evans and Grace. He brings a laconic vulnerability with a strict avoidance of melodramatic breakdowns. Sometimes he can be just a little too distant, with his delivery at times close to sleepy rather than contemplative, but he brings the feels when it counts during the films bigger emotional beats. It certainly helps that him and Grace share a thoroughly endearing and tender relationship, beautifully written and delivered with consummate ease. The filmmakers were certainly helped immeasurably in casting the effervescent Grace. She gifts the film (see what I did there) with an intelligent, mature and yes, graceful performance. Not to mention she is responsible for pretty much all the films’ biggest laughs, her line deliveries a goldmine of sardonic quick timing.
It is a credit to director Marc Webb (having a palate cleanser after the bloated Amazing Spider-Man films) that he lets his cast do the work. Sure he barely registers the film above a sun-soaked pleasantly warm glow, but he holds back the potential for yuck-inducing sentimentality. There are certainly times where he gets close, one scene in a hospital is a teary-eyed moment but one that many will find hard to keep the eye rolling at bay. Later scenes do wring all they can out of those tear ducts, particularly when Grace starts to weep (my biggest weakness is seeing a child desperately emotional, it kills me) that all but the most hard hearted of audience members will wipe their wet-stained eyes. Films that unashamedly wear their hearts on their sleeves are just what we need in these times of political turmoil and unconscionable violence towards innocents, especially ones with good performances, steady hands and intelligent writing.
Verdict: Unabashedly earnest and sometimes close to cloying, it is pulled back with a smart funny script, moving themes and naturalistic performances. Mckenna Grace is the gift at the heart of it all.