I thought I knew what I was getting into when I went into the screening of Gifted: a film that would tug mercilessly at my heartstrings, a feel-good family story, maybe a little cheesy in parts. Gifted is all of these things, but it’s also earnest, smart, and digs into its characters in a way that makes them seem real and believable. And, all right, yeah. I got a little misty-eyed.
Frank (Chris Evans), a smart but salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, has been caring for his niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace) since his math genius sister – her mother – killed herself when Mary was a baby. As it turns out, Mary has inherited her mother’s prodigious math abilities, and Frank has been homeschooling her to try to make sure she has a normal childhood. They’ve carved out a precarious but sunshiney existence in Florida: Frank, a former philosophy professor, fixes boats so the two of them can live in a small, brightly-colored cinderblock home with their “monocular” cat, Fred. Their landlord and friend, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) watches Mary when Frank can’t. It’s not a perfect world, but it’s one that maintains a harmonious orbit.
That world gets unbalanced suddenly when blunt, snarky Mary, unable to keep anything close to a low profile at school, shows her hand as both a genius and a brawler; Frank doesn’t want to send her to a gifted school, and Mary’s icy, British grandmother, Evelyn, gets wind of this and returns to fight for custody.
The conflict is simple and polarized: Frank, who wants Mary to be a normal kid, versus Evelyn, who wants Mary’s life to revolve around her mathematical abilities. Just because it’s simple, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. The film explores both sides of the equation. Very few people argue against gifted and talented programs, and it was an interesting line of thinking to follow. “If you segregate your leaders,” Frank says, “you end up with Congressmen.” Personal relationships are ranked above professional success here (although the film, of course, comes to a coalescence). While Frank’s perspective stems from a recoil from academia, triggered by the death of his sister, we learn that Evelyn has poured her own dreams into her daughter, and then her granddaughter.
The character development of the three central characters is strong, but the plot does have its issues – Jenny Slate’s character, while charming, doesn’t contribute much to the action, and a foster family solution toward the end of the movie doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s nothing too special about the way it’s shot.
But the film still charms thanks to the way it explores love between characters and the tricky navigation of the definition of family. The dialogue doesn’t veer into exposition or overdramatic speeches. Its loveliest moments are simple: a silhouetted discussion about God (“is there a God?” “I don’t know.” “Just tell me!”), Roberta and Mary singing and dancing together. After an unfortunate outburst about not having a life of his own, Frank takes Mary to the hospital. They wait for hours, watching a family in the waiting room, until a new father comes out to tell his family about a new baby. Mary watches the celebration, rapt, as Frank tells her, “It was exactly like that when you were born.” She asks who brought the news of her birth to the family, and Frank says, simply, “I did.”
I’ve seen a lot of reviews that condemn these kinds of movies as “emotionally manipulative,” but I’m loath to apply that label to Gifted. We get to know the characters, flaws and all, so the film feels like it merits each part of its ending. And, if I’m being honest – of course your emotions are being manipulated, that’s kind of the point. We see movies and read books and consume art because we want to feel everything from fear, catharsis, love, sadness. There’s a line here, but the question isn’t whether or not a film is trying to make you feel something; it’s whether or not it earns the right to.
From supporting to starring roles, all of the actors give strong performances; I’m especially impressed with Mckenna Grace, who’s only ten years old. Everything feels genuine with her, from her righteous anger at a classmate’s bullying to her unadulterated joy at playing with her cat to her betrayal and heartbreak at the idea that Frank is leaving her behind.
Gifted is a movie that knows what it’s about, and that’s to its strength rather than detriment. Its central message is clear: your family is made up of the people who love, support, and stand by you, period. The rest is details.
“He’s a good person, I think,” Mary says of her uncle, coloring. “He loved me before I was smart.”