Affecting scenes between Uncle Frank and niece Mary will stick with audiences.
Watching the trailer of Gifted, I felt I knew the whole film already, a rookie film critic mistake that reminded me that arriving to a film burdened with preconceived ideas is a fool’s errand. Despite its treacly storyline, this is a film with heart to spare and several outstanding performances. Yes, you’ll want to bring some tissues with you, but don’t check your sense of humor at the box office either: Gifted is a charming, deeply human film, so much so that complaining about its well-trod plot points strikes me as downright curmudgeonly. Also, this may be your last chance to peep a good, old-fashioned melodrama before legions of superheroes take over the theaters until next autumn.
Speaking of which, Captain America’s Chris Evans drops the red, white and blue here for a totally different type of shield, that of compassionate father figure and guardian Frank to his 7-year-old niece Mary (the excellent Mckenna Grace). He’s a Florida backwater boat monkey, and she’s a child prodigy who’d probably ace Will Hunting in any mathletics competition. With frequent assistance from next-door neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Mary’s been raised and home-schooled by Uncle Frank ever since the suicide of her equally numerically brilliant mother. Still, Frank’s determined that the li’l Einstein acquires some social skills with kids her own age and enrolls her in the local elementary school under the tutelage of kindly schoolmarm Bonnie (Jenny Slate). Predictably, Bonnie susses out the fact that Mary’s a bona fide pint-sized genius, and approaches Frank about enrolling her in a gifted and talented school. Believing that’ll sell the kid short in the emotional long run, he declines. Enter Mary’s British grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), herself something of a highly regarded intellectual, who’s determined not to let the child’s off-the-chart gifts go to waste, and so launches a custody battle with venom straight out of Kramer vs. Kramer. Tears are on the docket.
Synopsized like that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d seen all this a dozen times before. But Gifted’s strengths lie in the interstitial moments of this family’s life that in other, lesser films might be overlooked, or only briefly touched upon in some sort of musical montage. Two particularly affecting scenes — one of Roberta and Mary karaoke-ing their hearts out, and a sunset wide-shot sequence that has Mary quizzing Frank on the existence of God while climbing all over him like the world’s cutest monkey — will stick with audiences long after they’ve exited the theater. Writer Tom Flynn hit the “best unproduced movie” Black List a few years back with this script and it’s easy to see why: Gifted may rely on the extremely old-school lovable-orphan-and-adopted-parent template, but there’s a certain emotionally complex realism to both the performances and the storyline that lifts the film beyond the obvious and the clichéd.