Frank (Evans) tries to give his math prodigy niece Mary (Grace) a normal childhood. Her abilities are revealed at school and draw the attention of grandmother Evelyn (Duncan), seeking custody of Mary to fully develop her talents.
1 hour 41 minutes
April 12, 2017
Director: Marc Webb
Writer: Tom Flynn
Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate
Is the highest level of natural talent a gift or a responsibility? Should gifted children be raised to maximize their potential or be treated like normal children? Is it better for a child to receive opportunity or love? These are some of the questions that Gifted uses as a mask to conceal its real concern: parental expectations and the legacies they create.
Violence/Scary Images: Violent actions are implied but not shown on screen. A character’s suicide is discussed.
Language/Crude Humor: The F-word is used once.
Sexual Content: Two characters are shown kissing and then waking up in bed together.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters are shown drinking, both casually and to the point of a hangover.
Positive Content: People are defined by more than their intellectual abilities. Characters stand up for those who need help and for what they think is right.
The first third of Gifted sets up a boring movie about whether math genius kid Mary should be raised like a normal kid by her uncle Frank, or by her cartoonishly math-devoted grandmother Evelyn. The dialogue lacked wit and no cliche was left unturned. My heart sank in my chest, my head drooped forward, and my expectations sank to the depths. Of, course the guardian who loves the child is better. Not only is this broadly true, no mainstream American movie could ever suggest anything otherwise.
But the custody battle was resolved at the mid-point of the movie in a way that I did not expect. And when the new arrangement jolts Frank to realize that Mary belongs with him, he reveals that both he and Evelyn are reacting to Mary in light of her mother’s death. Mary’s mother Diane was also a math genius and took her own life just before completing a proof for one of the greatest problems in mathematics (the Navier-Stokes problem).
The movie is actually about the many ways parents shape their children. It shows each generation reacting against the choices their parents made for them. Frank raises Mary in an almost aggressively normal way because it is the inverse of Diane’s life – the life that Evelyn imposed upon her, the life that led to her suicide. And Evelyn uses Mary to achieve something that Diane almost did before self-destructing. Even Mary is drawn to math partly because of her mother’s legacy.
The way all this resolves is personally devastating for Evelyn, but for the audience peculiarly simple. Frank settles on a compromise that any reasonable person has been muttering under their breath for the past sixty minutes. It’s evident that Frank and Evelyn are only in conflict over Mary because they have not healed from their conflict over Diane.
Without the shadow of Diane, the plot could be resolved in minutes. This makes for an interesting meditation of trauma and how it affects the next generation. But I would love to see a movie about child prodigies that admitted that they aren’t like other children while examining the way in which they are still children. That would be outside this movie’s abilities, so perhaps it’s best that Gifted sticks to the family fallout of high expectations and mental illness.
The direction, editing, and music are all competent but unexceptional. Every actor gives a performance better than their material. Mckenna Grace makes Mary a believable child prodigy without acting like a tiny adult. Octavia Spencer does her best with the weirdly superfluous role of Frank and Mary’s neighbor Roberta. But the standouts are Chris Evans as Frank and Lindsay Duncan as Evelyn. Whenever the two of them are together on-screen the movie lifts, doubling in tension and emotional intensity.
There are some good components to this film. Yet Gifted doesn’t use these parts to say anything more than “treating kids like math engines rather than people is bad.” It’s a true and important thing to say. Yet the impression that the movie gives is that this point should be obvious. Characters only think otherwise because of psychological poison that has infected Evelyn. And Evelyn has given Frank lingering doubts about his parenting.
Again, these are fair points to make – but that means Gifted really has nothing to say about gifted children or the responsibilities of abnormal abilities. It could be about any topic that involves three generations of a family. The plot and theme have not been integrated, and this makes too much of its runtime ultimately empty.
Good Will Hunting retains its crown as the king of sentimental movies about fitting genius into society; why not watch that instead? For an amusing action movie spin on the child prodigy, try the Jason Statham vehicle Safe. But don’t let Gifted make you cry. It doesn’t quite deserve your tears.
+ Good performances from Chris Evans and Lindsay Duncan
+ Avoids the most obvious flaws
- Never rises above a basic level of coherence
- Inhuman and cliched dialogue in parts
- Not much to say