Kernel Rating (out of 5): (2.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 101 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This film about a custody battle between a son and his mother over his niece includes some cursing, crude jokes, and racially themed humor; some kissing, an implied sex scene, and implied nudity; a subplot about a character who took her own life; a bullying scene where a girl steps in and breaks a boy’s nose after his abuse of another student; adults drink, and in a few scenes are drunk and hungover; a scene in an animal shelter where three pets are about to be put down; and some mentions of bar fights and other physical altercations.
‘Gifted’ raises the question of what is more important: academic rigor and intellectual pursuit vs. a ‘normal’ childhood. It’s an interesting question handled without much nuance, and while the film pulls on heartstrings, the clumsy storytelling lacks impact.
By Roxana Hadadi
Family dramas don’t get much more formulaic than “Gifted.” This film about a custody battle between a man and his mother over the care of his genius niece hits all the emotional beats you would expect, develops all the characters as you would expect, and creates the melodramatic tension you would expect. There are some satisfying and effective moments, but they’re confirming what you already know the movie to be—“Gifted” has no surprises to offer.
The film from director Marc Webb (returning to his relationship drama roots after “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) is set in sunny, lush, working-class Florida, where 30something Frank Adler (Chris Evans, of “Captain America: Civil War”) is raising his 7-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace, of “Independence Day: Resurgence”) and sending her to public school for the first time. She’s not necessarily a problem child—she’s engaging, curious, and shockingly intelligent—but she has no social skills or friends, and as Frank tells her, it’s time to “try being a kid.”
How does that go over? Not immediately well. Mary is rude to the other students and dismissive of the first-grade curriculum of her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate, of “The LEGO Batman Movie”), who has the kids doing addition and subtraction. But when Bonnie tells Frank that she thinks Mary is “gifted,” he is just as dismissive as his niece, assuring the teacher that it’s just a mathematical trick.
It’s not, though, and Mary is more than just gifted. She’s a genius, already working on advanced concepts like differential equations, and it’s revealed that a family tragedy led her to be in Frank’s care. For nearly her entire life, he’s been her only guardian and her only friend aside from his neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer, of “Hidden Figures”), who adores the child and thinks public school for Mary is a terrible idea (“If anybody takes that baby away, I’ll smother you in my sleep,” she warns Frank). And she’s not wrong to be worried when Frank’s mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, of “Alice Through the Looking Glass”) arrives on his doorstep, disgusted by their living conditions, sneering at Frank’s working-class status, and determined to obtain custody of Mary.
Why Evelyn is so driven to be part of Mary’s life after her mathematical talents are revealed, and how she would shape Mary’s future vs. Frank’s attempts to give her a “regular” childhood, shape the custody battle that consumes the majority of “Gifted.” Yet Tom Flynn’s script is frustratingly simplistic, offering characterizations that don’t veer very far from “selfless handsome troubled blue-collar guy” and “conniving grandma with money and control issues.”
Evans is perfectly serviceable as a man just trying to make it work for his niece and Duncan does a good job as the icy mother who is constantly disappointed in him, but it’s upsetting how little the script asks of these characters. They barely change and only slightly grow, and major components of their personalities that could be explored at length (like Frank’s previous career in the humanities and Evelyn’s disappointment in giving up her studies to have children) are insufficiently discussed. The same goes for Mary, whose interest in and passion for math is never clearly articulated, and Roberta, who does little else than adore Mary simply because she is there to be adored.
Webb does the best he can with the material—the film often has that sun-kissed, Southern glow of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and at least all the actors have chemistry—but “Gifted” has little weight. The heart-warming moments are too often dampened by a pervasive anti-intellectualism, and what might stick most with you are the film’s implied suggestions about the irreconcilable differences between the wealthy and the working class and its undermining of academia. “Gifted” is the sort of insidiously “nice” movie whose strangely conflicting messages raise more questions about what the movie is trying to accomplish than what they answer.
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