'Gifted' is a manipulative, calculating weep-fest that also happens to be wonderful
PHOTO BY FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
Where is it playing?: Downtown Centre, Stadium 10, Park, Galaxy
What's it rated?: PG-13
What's it worth?: $ Matinee
What's it worth?: $ Full price
Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man) directs this screenplay by Tom Flynn (Watch It, Second String) about 7-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace), a mathematical prodigy being raised by her uncle Frank (Chris Evans), who wants nothing more than a normal childhood for his gifted niece. When Mary’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), learns of her granddaughter’s abilities, she works to get custody of the child to assure her talents aren’t wasted. The film also stars Jenny Slate as Bonnie, the teacher who discovers Mary’s math prowess, and Octavia Spencer as Roberta, Mary and Frank’s best friend. (141 min.)
Glen: Cynics beware! Gifted is a calculating weepfest designed to milk your tear ducts, and the hard-of-heart may find the film’s overt manipulation too heavy-handed. For me, however, I ate up every clichéd moment and loved it! You’ve got a precocious kid, a kind caregiver who’s out of his element and in over his head, a cruel matriarch who’s the math world’s equivalent of an overbearing stage mother, and the always-awesome Octavia Spencer as the sassy, blunt neighbor with the big heart. And for the ladies in the house, you’ve got a concerned but mousy teacher who happens to score the hunky but kind caregiver. It’s an effective combination, but certainly not an original one. The real star of the show is Grace, who’s actually 10 years old and already has 41 acting credits on her IMDB page. That’s a lot of work considering she started just four years ago in 2013. She’s remarkable as Mary and delivers a very natural performance. As the film progresses, we discover that Mary’s mother died and her uncle Frank accepted caregiving responsibilities. Like Mary, her mother was also a math genius who was pushed to the highest levels of achievement by her mother, Evelyn, herself a math genius who gave up her career to raise her children. Evelyn’s unfulfilled promise is first transferred to her daughter, who ultimately disappointed Evelyn, who sees another chance at math greatness in her granddaughter Mary. This sets up the tug-of-war over Mary’s guardianship. The question becomes, what’s best for Mary?
Anna: I’m a total sucker for movies that tug at your heartstrings, as long as they do so in a way that isn’t so overreaching that it becomes an adventure in eye rolling. Gifted hit that sweet spot, allowing imperfection in the characters and their situation, and keeping the drama from getting stale. I loved 500 Days of Summer; it seems Webb has a knack for picking scripts that highlight the delicate balance of relationships, whether familial or romantic. Grace is a star as Mary—spunky, adorable, and clever. The film opens up on her first day of first grade, and the first time she’s attended school at all. She proves to be a pistol in the classroom, piquing Bonnie’s attention when she does math out of the realm of most adults. This doesn’t make Frank happy—keeping a low profile on Mary’s abilities is the only way that he can see to give her a somewhat normal childhood. It doesn’t take long for the principal to take notice and try to convince Frank to send Mary to a private school where she can be challenged more fully. When he refuses, she takes it personally, getting grandmother Evelyn involved and messing up Frank’s plan of a normal, quiet life for Mary—the kind of life his late sister never had. What ensues is a rough battle of wills, Evelyn convinced that Mary’s fate should be to continue the family legacy, Frank believing his sister would have wanted a different fate for Mary, and perhaps the chance to have childhood normality with things like bike rides and Girl Scouts. Does the film cloy at melodrama? Sure, here and there. There are some very real, rough moments as well, and the balance in between creates a story with an effective emotional payoff.
Glen: The battle over Mary opens some raw wounds between Frank and his mother. Frank’s sister was the intellectual star of the family and it’s clear he feels abandoned and ignored by Evelyn. He also thinks Evelyn pushed his sister too far, and he’s torn between blaming his mother and himself for his sister’s death. Evelyn is so desperate to have control over another math prodigy that she even seeks out Mary’s birth father, a man who has never met Mary and never had any connection to her life. It’s an act of desperation on Evelyn’s part and shows just how far she’s willing to go to control Mary’s life. This sets up the most emotionally poignant moment in the film after Mary has a breakdown when she learns her birth father was in town for the custody trial but didn’t come to meet her. Mary acutely feels abandoned, and it’s a feeling Frank knows as well. I won’t spoil the moment for you, but Frank is able to reinforce just how loved Mary is when they, along with Roberta, take a little field trip. It’s an emotional tour de force. If you need a good cry, if you want to be reminded what it means to chose love, see Gifted. Yes, it’s manipulative, and yes, Evelyn is a bit too villainous to feel authentic, but it’s a beautifully told, heartwarming story about saving a little girl’s childhood.
Anna: The custody battle airs everyone’s dirty laundry, from Evelyn’s overbearing and driven choices as a mother to Frank’s beach bum lifestyle complete with bar fights and a lack of health insurance. Evelyn only appears in Mary’s life when she shows prospects at genius. That coupled with her hard-edged, driven personality make her particularly unlikeable. Frank describes her as “very British,” a nod not just to her accent but to her formality—when Mary calls her “grandma” she quickly corrects that either Grandmother or Evelyn will do just fine. Yet even though her villainous side is front and center, she and Frank manage to reconnect in some small ways, both recognizing what the loss of Mary’s mother has done to each of them. This is a film that had me crying with joy as well as sorrow; its emotional resonance has peaks and valleys that give the story added depth and a firmer grounding in reality. While I’m sure there are plenty of critics that role their eyes at the manipulative nature of the film, I think there’re plenty of people like me who can’t help but love a sweet, tender story about love.
Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at email@example.com.