DIR: Mark Webb • WRI: Tom Flynn • PRO: Andy Cohen, Karen Lunder • DOP: Stuart Dryburgh • ED: Bill Pankow • DES: Laura Fox • MUS: Rob Simonsen • CAST: Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, McKenna Grace
Gifted may be a schlocky feast with a side order of ‘feel-goodness’, but the film manages to maintain an earnestness thanks to the genuine performances from its talented cast. The question of how best to provide for intellectually gifted children is one that has never been truly answered satisfactorily; give the child access to more challenging content and they risk being alienated from their peers and potential arrested social development, yet confining them to their age appropriate level of study may stifle the spark of brilliance they carry within them. Director Mark Webb tries to tackle this juxtaposition head on but, ultimately, belies the complexity of the issue raised in the first two acts of the film by confusing cheesy melodrama for profoundness or insight, choosing to quickly wrap things up in a neat little package while ignoring the loose threads still obviously dangling by the film’s conclusion.
After the tragic death of his mathematically gifted sister, Frank Alder (Chris Evans) is single-handily raising his seven-year-old niece Mary (McKenna Grace), herself a child prodigy. After insisting that Mary attends a local elementary school in order to interact with kids her own age, Frank finds himself caught up in a legal battle with his formidable mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who mistakes Frank’s insistence that Mary be granted as normal a childhood as possible as a deliberate obstruction of her granddaughter’s flourishing genius. Aided by a loyal neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), and Mary’s first grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), Frank is torn between wanting to give his beloved niece all the opportunities that her brilliant mind will open for her, and wanting to save her from the sad and isolated pillar on which his mother had placed his sister. If not for the fact that the film goes out of the way to overly malign Evelyn’s character, who has good, if short-sighted, intentions, this would have made for an intriguing dilemma and added tension to the core of the narrative. However, Webb ensures that the lines are drawn from the get-go and robs the story of any nuance it could have benefitted from. Despite moments of real emotion scattered throughout, by the time the film reaches its climax it all feels so inevitable.
The film may be a frothy fluff piece but is anchored from floating into the abyss by the charming performances from its lead actors. Chris Evans brings heart to his turn as the imperfect but dedicated Frank, elevating the ‘damaged but sensitive hunk’ (as one character not so subtly describes him) archetype to something that feels human. Lindsay Duncan is also very watchable, despite her character being regulated to the ‘bad guy’ role. Though the script only allows very few glimpses into Evelyn’s true emotions, when it does, Duncan ensures that those moments really hit home. Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate are perfectly passable in their respective roles, though neither of their characters is ever expanded much upon beyond the basic function they serve to the plot. As for the titular gifted one, McKenna Grace, as Mary, is very endearing, though there are moments in the film where it becomes apparent she is merely reciting lines that contain words or concepts outside her comprehension rather than making it believable as the character’s real thoughts.
Overall, Gifted is too paint-by-numbers to be brilliant but it makes for an enjoyable watch even though it often goes for the low ground to make an emotional impact.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Gifted is released 9th June 2017