Gifted – Film Review by Pat V.
Director: Marc Webb
Writer: Tom Flynn
Stars: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan
From the 1979 Oscar winning Kramer versus Kramer to the recent adaptation of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew we have seen numerous films where parents use their children as pawns in divorce cases and custody battles. Director Marc Webb’s movie, Gifted, takes a slightly different approach to a similar situation. In it we see an uncle and grandmother fight for the guardianship of a six-year-old, gifted child, each with very different attitudes and convinced they know what is best for her future.
When we first meet Frank Adler (Chris Evans of Captain America fame), he is living in a trailer park, doing a dead-end job and looking after his niece, Mary, whom he’s cared for since she was a baby, with the help of a kindly neighbour, Roberta, (Olivia Spencer). We learn that his sister, Diane, Mary’s mother, had been a mathematical genius but had taken her own life soon after Mary’s birth. Realising that Mary too is a mathematical prodigy, he is determined that she should lead as normal a life as possible and should be spared the rarefied atmosphere of a school for gifted children and the other, often unseen, pressures that can go with the mixed blessing of being ‘gifted’.
He insists she goes to a normal elementary school where her first days are not a great success. Impatient with the basic arithmetic explained by her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), Mary stuns her with her ability to perform complex multiplication and division problems. Soon Frank finds himself under pressure from the school authorities to move her to a more challenging environment but insists he wants Mary to stay where she is and mix with ordinary children, a view supported by Bonnie.
Enter the grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), and Frank’s life (and the film) take a downward turn. Duncan is a fine actress but here she has been given a terrible part to play. Think Mrs. Thatcher crossed with the White Witch from Narnia. From the moment we hear her sharp-edged British accent (so much in contrast with the rest of the cast), we know there is going to be trouble. Evelyn is obsessed with mathematical success and is determined that Mary should follow in the footsteps of her mother, regardless of the consequences for her social development. The one dimensional role she is forced to play is such a flat caricature that it is hard to take seriously. It skews the balance of the film and, as it is central to the development of the story, reduces it from drama to farce.
McKenna Grace as the precocious young Mary gives an energetic and engaging performance, giving full vent to the tantrums, theatricals and tears that her role demands. She has a real screen presence and holds our attention every time she appears on screen. There is a lot of potential here but it is very much a film of two halves. The early scenes show us a genuine internal struggle on the part of Frank to create the best life possible for his niece, and we believe in it, but the film slips, in the second part, into cliché and sentimentality and ends in saccharine melodrama. A missed opportunity.