“Gifted” is an indie drama about a child genius. Often movies like this are based on true stories. This one is not, and yet the screenplay, though the term suggests otherwise, is far from “original”.
Chris Evans plays Frank. He's a freelance small engine mechanic who repairs boats in a small Florida town. But his biggest job is taking care of his seven-year-old niece, Mary (played by McKenna Grace, who’s also the daughter of Kiefer Sutherland’s U.S. President on ABC's “Designated Survivor”). As the film begins Mary is about to start her first day of First Grade at a local public school. Frank, in the best wishes of his late sister (Mary's mom), wants the girl to experience a normal life. But she's far from a normal seven-year-old.
Mary is a mathematical whiz - a genius when it comes to numbers, a gift she inherited from her mother. Frank, and neighbor/unofficial godmother Roberta (played by Octavia Spencer), have been able to keep this secret from everyone until now. But when Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) discovers the truth, it's not long before everyone wants to get involved - and the fight for Mary is underway.
I was hoping, as the story began to take shape, that "Gifted" would examine the effects, both positive and negative, having such an amazing intellectual gift would have such a young girl - the conflict between being a "regular" kid and being a child prodigy.
Director Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spider-Man”, “(500) Days of Summer”) does touch on theme in bits and pieces throughout the film, and for me, these are the most interesting moments. In one of the best scenes, Frank tells his “very British” mother Evelyn, who stages a legal fight for her granddaughter, “You’re gonna take that girl: You’re gonna lone her out to some think tank, where she can talk non-trivial zeros with a bunch of old Russian guys for the rest of her life.”
But, unfortunately, it's the custody battle that dominates "Gifted" - Uncle v. Grandmother - each side looking to prove that the other is unfit to care for young Mary, in multiple courtroom scenes. During these stretches, and several scenes involving Evans and Slate (which emulate their recent real-life history), the little girl becomes an afterthought. And what could have been becomes, instead, a typical melodrama, with plenty of holes in logic and less than believable situations.
I didn’t buy Evans as a former Philosophy professor, and some of his motivations don’t make a whole lot of sense. Spencer is wasted, simply part of the cast to add more star-power, and the pivotal moment in the story relies on a moment of luck that only happens in the movies.
Grace gets Mary just right - a nice balance of adorable and bratty. And you can argue that “Gifted” has its heart in the right place. The best scene, which is both refreshing and meaningful - set in a hospital waiting room - is the perfect example.
“Gifted” is certainly watchable, but a film about an extraordinary child shouldn’t feel this ordinary.