Story of child prodigy provides antidote to blockbuster Hollywood flicks
“Gifted” is much like the child prodigy whose story it tells: cute and rare but overly formulaic.
Mckenna Grace plays 7-year-old Mary Adler, a mathematical genius who knows all the right numbers to any problem, and yet her life is limited to just ones: one parent — Frank (Chris Evans) — one bedroom in a one-bedroom home and her one-eyed cat companion, Fred.
Determined to give her a “normal” childhood in Florida with friends her age, Frank sends Mary to the local public school, much to the disagreement of his babysitter neighbor, Roberta, played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer. It's clear why.
Mary does not fit in with her classmates, whom she visibly outpaces in intellect. Her teacher takes notice and recommends Frank send Mary to a more specialized academy. He refuses, not because he can't afford it on his boat-repairman salary. Rather, he knows the dark abyss to which it could eventually lead: his mother.
Playing the ultimate helicopter (grand)parent, Lindsay Duncan's Evelyn does indeed swoop in from Massachusetts to take custody of Mary, disapproving of the life Frank has given her. Mary needs not SpongeBob SquarePants but MIT square profs to change the world, so long as Evelyn is there to see — or sue — to it.
Evelyn takes her fight with Frank to the court, where the truth is revealed about their past and the effect it could have on Mary.
From the courtroom to the classroom to its conclusion, “Gifted” is an emotional trial on the purpose and direction of an innocent girl's life. For Evelyn and Frank, it's about what will make her (or maybe them) happy. Is it fortune and fame? Or family, friends and even a little bit of faith?
Director Marc Webb would know: After his low-budget and highly regarded “(500) Days of Summer,” he accepted a lucrative offer to reboot the “Spider-Man” franchise. Unlike Mary in “Gifted,” Webb's numbers weren't pretty. His first entry had the series' weakest opening, and its sequel was panned by critics.
So Webb returned to what clearly makes him happier, telling a story driven not by comics but characters. And with them, he succeeds. Although Evans can at times be a bit Captain-like in his delivery, he, Duncan, Spencer and, in particular, Grace give heartfelt performances. They are the gift in “Gifted.”
Its “wrapping,” however — though beautifully shot and succinctly told — doesn't change the shape of what audiences are about to open. “Gifted” unfortunately relies too heavily on cliched formulas used in past parent-child reconciliation reels.
Still, it's a sentimental story not often seen in today's big-budget Hollywood. And though unlikely to reach monumental numbers like its child star, “Gifted” happily succeeds at being a small, family-friendly one.