Gifted is the kind of film where an emotional courtroom scene plays out, with rain seen just outside the window to emphasize the drama, but you don’t mind because the main characters involved still spend relaxed moments with each other minutes later. This is a film that traffics in ideas expected from stories dealing with legal guardianship over precocious children, but is still quite likable thanks to the rapport shared between the cast members. It’s not sly enough to suggest a level of self-awareness and the way it plays out is certainly in line with your average tearjerker. It’s just a good thing I didn’t mind spending time with these people.
The gifted individual in question is 7-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace). She lives in a small town in Florida and begins the film by heading off to her first day of school. Bored in class and quick to talk back, we quickly learn that Mary is a mathematical prodigy, but her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) is determined to provide her a normal life, by keeping her away from schools that would both challenge her and take away her chance to be a kid. Frank is the de facto guardian for various reasons, and the eventual arrival of his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) calls this into question, once learning of Mary’s potential.
You may be able to see where things are going from there, especially since the script by Tom Flynn is less about surprises than it is about how these characters relate to each other. Given the Florida setting, one could even look to a film like this in relation to a Nicolas Sparks drama, save for the fact that the dialogue is far from dull and hacky. The effort was clearly put in to take this emotionally manipulative story and inject it with a sense of warmth that comes from the attitudes characters share with each other and the natural banter that develops.
This is never more apparent than with Evans and Grace, who play quite naturally off each other. Their relationship is obviously key to the film’s success and this is indeed a highlight. Evans actually gets to shine a lot in this film, as his laid back charm (easily displaying his pleasure in taking a break from super heroics) extends itself to the relationships he has with co-stars Duncan, Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate. Since every character is competent and intelligent, it only further strengthens the level of respect I can give to those involved in a film so clearly designed to make an audience cry.
I called the film a drama, but it does have plenty of humor. It’s found in all that interplay I appreciated. Of course, the supporting cast leaves an impression to also help move things along. For instance, Spencer doesn’t need to be a part of this cast, but with a Fox studio contract and an ability to fit comfortably with any group and feel like a grounded presence, who’s going to say “no” to her? Even some simple scenes between Evans and Glenn Plummer as his lawyer play less like exposition and more like old friends talking.
Director Marc Webb, who has returned from the blockbuster world handed to him with The Amazing Spider-Man films and now working in territory that calls back to his initial film offering, (500) Day so of Summer, holds back on the flashiness in favor of character focus. He has a pro, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, doing the best he can with the beachy Florida setting. Webb’s music video directing origins also afford him the chance to build a fine soundtrack.
It’s not all witty banter and well-lit scenes though. While not stooping to levels as low as The Judge, there are only so many fresh ways to put together a film with legal battles taking up major screentime. Since so many films like this have used Kramer vs. Kramer as a jumping off point, it’s hard not to look at how played out scenes of lawyers digging into protagonists to an exaggerated extent have become. But Gifted also provides a judge played by a character actor who’s probably been a judge in hundreds of films and feels so natural. It’s not like I’m making excuses for the film, there’s just no reason to deny the choices made that work.
There is a concern created through a lack of Mary in the film’s final third, which is more of a problem. Young Mckenna Grace is way too delightful in her role to have us switch gears over to a feud between her uncle and grandmother. The plot machinations used to bring their squabbles to a head and be sure to incorporate mathematics gives the film a feeling of some soap opera version of Good Will Hunting. Still, the well-worn territory only holds the film back so far, when it’s genuinely touching in its execution.
Gifted may not be too much of a challenge for those seeking more from their films about legal guardians struggling to do the best for their kids, but it still puts its best foot forward. The film is suitably made and well-acted by its cast. There is enough coming out of the script to have me enjoy the way these people interacted, even when considering just how clear things were in what the film wanted to get out of the audience. It’s a familiar drama, but an affecting one, with enough charm.