On paper, the plot of Marc Webb’s Gifted reads as being somewhat saccharine, clichéd and kind of generic. It’s the story of a bachelor, Frank (Chris Evans, sans lycra for once), bringing up the precociously ‘gifted’ Mary (Mckenna Grace). She’s the daughter of his similarly progenic sister, whose life of pressured genius led to her suicide some six years earlier.
When Mary’s school teacher, Miss Stevenson (comic, Jenny Slate), discovers the girl’s intellectual brilliance and spreads the word, it is not long before her Grandmother (Lindsey Duncan) appears on the scene, demanding custody and promising a future of elite education leading to greatness. A court case ensues, with Frank fighting for the right to give Mary the right to the life he claims his sister wanted for her: ‘Just dumb her down into a decent human being’. Sounds rough, but he means well.
On screen, meanwhile? Yeah, Gifted is very much saccharine, clichéd and kind of generic. Yet, there’s undeniable heart and warmth here, predominantly thanks to the film’s endearing leads, all in all making for a softly engaging watch. It’s rough, but it means well.
It’s easy to sniff at films like Gifted. Whilst it’s hard not to imagine that the film’s protagonist would fairly swiftly switch off from the film, there’s still much to be enjoyed here. Clichés are clichés for a reason after all. Grace is herself a promising early talent, having accrued an impressive range of films and television work across her CV for one so young. It helps that she and Evans quickly manage a sweet and believable rapport, reminiscent of the intellectually equal relationships of Viggo Mortensen and his children in Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic. Zingers fly in both directions.
Evans’ Frank is a man struggling with balancing the responsibilities of childcare against his own losses. His sister’s death is raw and bound with a burdening secret but it is the loss of his own youth that is so plainly Frank’s albatross. It’s a telling moment that sees him slip out that so common of parental lines: ‘Can I just get five minutes of my own life?’ It’s a perhaps unusual layer of pain for a film so brightly hued.
Likewise, contrary to what you might expect, Gifted is a film loaded with moral dilemmas which are surprisingly complex – even when delivered without an iota of nuance. Don’t expect much by way of bravery in its conviction and directorial choices. Tom Flynn’s script is the ever present fairy godmother to reverse gutting twists. This is a film in which the soundtrack does the hard work for you, at every turn supplying you with the relevant emotion that you’re supposed to be feeling.
Perhaps less easy to swallow, and the main stumbling block of the film, are the intrusions of supporting characters upon Frank and Mary’s humble haven. Duncan’s custody case stretches plausibility and lacks all that much jeopardy amid a script that points specifically to only one type of ending. Similarly, the utterly brilliant Octavia Spencer feels pretty wasted once again given the role of Frank and Mary’s neighbour and babysitter. Slate fares slightly better in the script as Mary’s teacher Bonnie, but as a stock love interest for Evans is hardly proactive. All three are neatly played pawns in the chess game of manipulation.
As backhanded as it might be to say, Gifted could have been a lot worse. There’s a Little Miss Sunshine vibe but this is a weaker and messier effort. Gifted works then because at its heart are performances that are engaging and entirely worth watching. I laughed and smiled throughout for sure. No I didn’t cry, but I suspect I was meant to.