Director Marc Webb’s GIFTED, about a brilliant young girl and her doting uncle, is out to make every woman’s ovaries explode. You should know this going in. There’s a cute, one-eyed orange tabby cat named “Fred,” who’s an integral presence in many scenes – even the ones he doesn’t appear in. Chris Evans’ portrayal of a parental figurehead will assuredly the jerk the tears right outta your eyes in this showcase for his scruffy handsomeness and charming demeanor. And McKenna Grace’s performance as an adorably precocious, pint-sized prodigy will have you saying “Kiernan Shipka, who?!” That said, Webb, along with screenwriter Tom Flynn, do all the right things wrong in order to garner such visceral, emotional reactions from their audience.
Frank Adler (Evans) is doing the best he can for his strong-willed seven-year-old niece Mary (Grace). He’s provided her with a tiny but cozy home. He takes her on trips to the beach with her rescue cat Fred (who, fun fact, is a character inspired by Flynn’s real life monocular’d pet cat). And he fosters a loving environment to help quell Mary’s social anxieties. But there’s something different about Mary. Not only is she witty and wise beyond her years, what with her forty-year-old landlady bestie Roberta (Octavia Spencer), she’s also a super genius math-whiz. Trouble rears its head when Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) notices the youngster’s genius and alerts the principal. They advise that Mary be put in school for gifted students – something Frank is eager to avoid as this is the path Mary’s deceased, similarly “Beautiful-Minded” mother took. His attempts at normalcy are further thwarted when his estranged, wealthy and formidable mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, who should be cast as a comic book movie villain tout suite) comes to town, plotting to separate Frank and Mary through a legal court battle.
The story finds nuance in the theme of living up to one’s potential – or the fear of not being able to: Frank was a philosophy professor, but now works as a freelance boat mechanic. Mary’s shot at having a well-rounded, healthy childhood might be stifled as she seems to crave higher learning. Evelyn was on the fast track to mathematician super-stardom before motherhood eclipsed her dreams of greatness. In trying to dodge being disappointments, they’ve relegated themselves to being disappointed with each other.
That said, everything in Flynn’s script goes down exactly as you’d expect – from the overarching story beats, to the conflict, to the resolution: Bonnie insists “This can’t happen,” as she drinks, making puppy dog eyes at Frank’s candid vulnerability – smash cut to them bursting through his bedroom door in flagrante. Roberta predicts that Frank will lose Mary by sending her to a “regular” elementary school. A tertiary character even remarks “that’s predictable,” after a betrayal occurs. You’re literally telling us. If it’s not enough that the trial allows for exposition to be dumped in buckets our heads like a Floridian rainstorm, we’re also given bluntly stated reveals to heighten the drama. And don’t think that the problem Mary’s mom failed to solve isn’t coming back.
‘Neurotic rich white mom knowing best’ is a trope populating these kinds of sappy, saccharine-coated dramedies (e.g. Jessica Lange in THE VOW and Joan Allen in virtually anything). However, the filmmakers’ attempt to build out the character and stoke any empathy on her part – specifically in the third act – doesn’t work effortlessly. Frank’s literal “save the cat” moment, while thrilling, is a bit on the nose.
Webb also utilizes plenty of manipulative devices to hammer things home, without ever hitting a genuine home-run. When Mary weeps in the bathroom over her biological deadbeat dad, the camera is locked in extreme close-up on her wet eyelashes and tear-dampened face, saying her lines in the saddest, tiniest of voices. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t effective, but it didn’t strike me as sincere. Webb also goes handheld in a few places to increase the immediacy and intimacy of the scenes, but it seems like a superficial sheen added to material that should be able to stand on its own. The third act also made me choke up, but with dismay that I was falling for these calculated elements hook, line and sinker.
While there’s a definite appeal to the heartfelt earnestness within GIFTED, it feels more disingenuous than the real deal.
3 out of 5
GIFTED opens in limited release on April 7. It opens in wide release on April 14.