Movie review: ‘Gifted’ proves to be a good-natured gift for moviegoers
Even if you think you’ve had about enough of those “precocious little kid caught in the middle of a nasty custody battle” movies, give this one a chance. It’s charming, it’s riveting, it boasts a finely crafted script with surprises in all the right places, and every member of the cast hits each note perfectly.
The little kid is 7-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace, currently playing Kiefer Sutherland’s daughter on “Designated Survivor”), who lives in Florida with her single dad Frank (Chris Evans), a lackadaisical fellow who makes his living repairing boats, while also homeschooling Mary.
Well, that’s what the script would initially have you believe. Frank may be easygoing, but he’s no slouch; he’s a former professor of philosophy at Boston University. And he’s not Mary’s father, but her uncle and guardian since she was 6-months-old. Yes, he is homeschooling her, but the time has come, against her imploring wishes, for her to go to a regular public school. So it’s off to the bus stop, frowning all the way, and onto the school bus for Mary, followed by Frank explaining to their neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer, doing the small character role thing) that Mary “just doesn’t know how to be a kid.”
Neither does she know how to be in school with other 7-year-olds. That’s shown on the first day when her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) starts asking her students, “How much is 2+2?” It’s soon proven that Mary is an outspoken, right-to-the-point little girl. She complains aloud that she’s way ahead of everyone there and that she has no patience for simple arithmetic. After throwing a complex multiplication problem Mary’s way, which she gets right, Bonnie realizes something special is going on, and is then treated to frustrated Mary shouting, “Get me out of here!”
The film takes its sweet time letting the story develop, carefully revealing bits of information about different characters, constantly changing the mood of what’s going on. What starts as a seemingly light and entertaining story about an exceptionally bright girl and her loving relationship with her uncle turns slowly and surely into a courtroom drama about a bitter custody case, all the while maintaining themes of trust and the importance of telling the truth. A side benefit is that the soundtrack features repeated playings of Cat Stevens performing “The Wind.”
Throughout the journey of the film’s plotline, additional characters keep showing up, the most important and dynamic of whom is Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), the persnickety British mother of Frank and his late sister Diane — who was Mary’s mother. Frank gained custody of Mary just after Diane’s suicide, and Evelyn, disapproving everything about that situation, had written off her son and granddaughter. But now, out of the blue, she’s back, with a vengeance, determined to make life better for Mary by taking her away from Frank because she believes he’s denying her potential as a math prodigy.
That’s the heavy side of the story. The more enjoyable stuff revolves around Mary’s mathematical abilities, with the most amusing scene taking place at MIT where, in front of a huge, equation-filled blackboard, a piece of chalk in her hand, determination on her face, she gets into problem-solving mode.
As more background information keeps slipping through the cracks, some of it focusing on long-gone Diane, it’s made clear that there are no villains in this film. Not even Evelyn, who’s initially presented as a strong-willed ogre who is determined to get her way, but is later shown to be, like just about every other adult character, someone who’s only trying to do the right thing for Mary.
Oh, right ... Mary. Mckenna Grace plays her with a range that goes from serious to condescending to inquisitive to terribly sad to happy little girl. It’s the little kid performance of the year, so far.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
Written by Tom Flynn; directed by Marc Webb
With Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Lindsay Duncan