by Tom Flynn
Chris Evans, one of the Top Chrises in the world, has made some very interesting choices in projects. This is a tiny, independent movie about family and genius and how do you help a kid who is ridiculously smart also manage to be a happy and healthy kid?
Chris Evans plays Frank Adler, a guy who repairs boats in Florida while raising his seven-year-old niece, Mary. Mary gets sent to school to get some socialization and make friends, and after some hiccups, begins to do well… until her grandmother Evelyn (Frank’s mom, played by Lindsay Duncan) gets wind of her magnificent brain and math skills, and tries to take her away to make sure she reaches her potential. Frank is certain that his sister, Mary’s mother, would have wanted her to have a normal childhood, and things get ugly.
Yeah, I cried a little.
Mary is one of those smart, precocious kids you see all the time, and she could be super annoying, but McKenna Grace layers in enough charm and snark so that she can carry this role. She gets a chance to be a bratty little shit, and run around like a little perpetual motion machine on the beach, and love her one-eyed cat (his name is Fred, and he’s the best cat in the world), all while learning differential equations and doing what every kid is doing: figuring out who she is and what her place in the world is. Grace has an excellent, natural rapport with Evans, willing to use him as a jungle gym and yell and cajole and snuggle.
Quick note about the cat: He’s a very patient cat, and a very sweet cat who likes going on boat rides and hanging on the beach, and there is a moment where the cat is in peril, BUT HE SURVIVES. HE’S FINE.
This movie is about trying to figure out what to do with a kid who is super smart. How to mold them into decent human beings with empathy (even when they think their peers are annoying and slow) and at the same time, give them enough challenge to keep them interested in school. Mary’s first day in regular school didn’t go well, because she’s way beyond basic arithmetic, and things are rocky for a while while Mary and Mary’s teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) work out their relationship. Things come to a head when Mary beats the shit out of an older kid who picked on one of her classmates. (She doesn’t say “Of course I stood up for the kid because my uncle is Captain America,” but the visual is there.)
While Mary has been raised and shaped by her uncle – a man with her best interests at heart, always being worried that he’s not enough for her – it’s her relationships with women that help finesse the edges. Roberta, her neighbor (played by Octavia Spencer, and I’ll get to this part), adores Mary like her own kid. Bonnie, who naturally falls for Frank’s forearms, also just wants to be the best teacher for Mary she can be. Her Grandmother (not “grandma,” never “grandma”) Evelyn, thinks that Mary’s mother’s math talent was ultimately wasted, and doesn’t want the same to happen to Mary. But it all comes down to Mary’s mother. She died long before this story began, but her ghost is in everyone’s mind, because they’re all wondering and interpreting the same question: what did she want for her kid?
I think this movie delivers an excellent message, that raising a kid who is a good person and good citizen and has a happy life should be the ultimate goal. “Best interests of the child” isn’t that easy to figure out, either. Sure, Grandmother has a big house and a piano and all of these things, but Frank understands Mary in a way that no one else does. Even if the kid is super smart, she still has the emotional maturity of a seven-year-old. So, even if you can explain why someone wants to take her away from the life she knows, there are levels at which she won’t understand it. “Grown ups decided this disruption to your life is the best thing for you” is hard, no matter how smart you are.
The main frustration I had with Gifted is the ultimate waste of Octavia Spencer. Her role is functionally a Mammy archetype, designed to support and raise the white leads, and there’s very little Roberta does besides give Frank advice and be a mother figure for Mary. She has no inner life. And Octavia Spencer is great, because she’s a fantastic actress and a goddamn professional and will ALWAYS elevate the work. But she gets a lot of these roles, and thank god she gets other, stronger roles like Dorothy Vaughan, because she deserves way better.
I really enjoyed this film, frustrations aside. I think that Evans has made a lot of interesting choices with his career beyond the MCU. I loved Jenny Slate in Parks and Recreation, so seeing her in a completely different role is great. I was actually surprised to see that Mckenna Grace plays the annoying kid in Designated Survivor (the Kiefer Sutherland political thriller drama on NBC), and on DS, I find her character to be insufferable, but here she’s a delight. Gifted is emotional and will hit you square in all your feels, so prepare to cry, and bring tissues to share.
Gifted is in theaters now and tickets (US) are available at Fandango and Moviefone.