Marc Webb, director of “500 Days of Summer,” excelled with his latest indie drama, “Gifted.” It tells a moving, personal story about the relationship between Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), an intellectually gifted seven-year-old, and her uncle Frank Adler (Chris Evans), a reserved boat laborer. Both leads give surprisingly charming performances in their earnest portrayals of the duo’s day-to-day interactions, from discussing religion at the beach to Frank preparing a reluctant Mary for her first day of school. There’s a refreshing vivacity to their relationship, though at times the film tries pretty hard to tug at the heartstrings.
Frank views Mary as a smart and capable little girl who deserves a normal life — girl scouts, sports and the like. Once the school administration and Mary’s intense grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), discover her genius, Mary becomes the center of a high-stakes legal battle for custody of her life and mental faculties. Frank scrambles to hold on to Mary, who was left in his care after his sister, a brilliant mathematician driven to the edge by rigid training, committed suicide. Unfortunately, he’s a working-class man without healthcare, causing doubt as to whether he’s the most suitable guardian for Mary. It’s an intricately complicated premise that asks the viewer to consider multidimensional moral issues.
Though the premise is strong, the narrative is marred by some poor story decisions. Mary’s teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), doesn’t contribute much besides romantic filler, and the beloved Octavia Spencer is tragically underutilized as Frank and Mary’s friend and landlady, Roberta. While the courtroom witness testimonies sharpen the nuances of the characters’ histories and ulterior motives, these revelations aren’t followed up on. For instance, Evelyn’s attorney grills Frank on his reasoning for relocating Mary across state lines, insinuating that Frank may have wanted to get back at Evelyn for her strict treatment, but the characters never further discuss the accusation. Ultimately, it feels that these subtle but significant revelations are forgotten, sadly leaving some of the depth unexplored.
The story of “Gifted” is impactful, but the plot could be threaded tighter to maintain forward momentum, as done more cohesively in other films about the neglected genius (a la “The Soloist” and “Good Will Hunting”). The film could be better with more integral scenes or nuanced conversations where the characters reflect more on their reasons for raising Mary and, more importantly, the stakes involved, as well as their own limitations in providing Mary what she needs. The central conflict, while two-sided, isn’t exactly multidimensional in that Evelyn and Frank sometimes seem to stand on opposite sides of the courtroom just for the sake of cinematic antagonism. Even though there’s still some unfulfilled potential, “Gifted” holds its own by its captivating portrayal of Frank and Mary’s relationship and a sincere story that provides much more engagement than the typical summer blockbuster.
Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan
Release Date: April 12, 2017
Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures