Marc Webb burst onto the scene in 2009 with his directorial debut, the hipster romantic comedy-drama ‘(500) Days of Summer’. He then spent years flailing in blockbuster purgatory, vainly attempting to relaunch the Spider-Man franchise with two lukewarm films for Sony. ‘Gifted’ is a return to his low-budget, story-focused roots and minimal studio interference.
In a small town near Tampa, seven-year-old Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace, ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’) shows unusual mathematical talent on her first day of first grade, which impresses her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate, ‘Obvious Child’). Mary is offered a scholarship to a private school for gifted children. However, her uncle and de facto guardian, Frank (Chris Evans, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘Snowpiercer’), turns it down as he fears Mary will not have a chance at a “normal” childhood. Evans plays Frank as low-key, hardly a superheroic-type but simply a good guy with soul. Webb effectively lets Grace take centre stage while Evans carries the heavy adult plot.
It’s revealed that Mary's mother, Diane, had been a promising mathematician, dedicated to solving the incredibly tricky Navier–Stokes problem before taking her own life when Mary was six months old. Mary has lived with Frank ever since.
Frank's “exacting” estranged mother and Mary's maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, ‘Le Week-End’, ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’), seeks to gain custody of Mary and move her to Massachusetts, believing that Mary is a “one-in-a-billion” mathematical prodigy who should be specially tutored in preparation for a life devoted to mathematics.
An emotional and legal tug-of-war begins over Mary’s big ol’ math brain. Tears aplenty ensue. There is even a loveable one-eyed cat.
Director Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn give us a sweet and meaningful story of love, family and finding balance in life. It also makes for a juicy drama, with well-constructed twists and multi-layered plot lines, doled out at precise beats during the film. It’s quite funny, too, with plenty of clever banter traded between intelligent characters.
The film benefits immensely from a charismatic cast. Chris Evans (playing a regular dude amongst intellectual powerhouse women) has excellent chemistry with Mckenna Grace.
‘Gifted’ has a lot of familiar story beats. Child prodigies have been explored through superb films such as ‘Little Man Tate’, ‘Searching for Bobby Fisher’ and ‘Shine’ (as well as dross like ‘Mercury Rising’ and the legendarily shit ‘The Book of Henry’). While this one runs heavier on the melodrama, it mostly steers clear of “Movie of the Week on the Syrupy-Feel-Good-Vibes-Channel” territory.
The film benefits from a charismatic cast. Chris Evans (playing a regular dude amongst intellectual powerhouse women) has excellent chemistry with Mckenna Grace. Lindsay Duncan is wintery as the ostensible baddie of the piece, and Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer are sympathetic in supporting roles.
Eight-year-old Grace, cast by Webb after an eight-month exhaustive search, is the real MVP here as a child genius who is simultaneously vulnerable to the whims of the adults around her and capable of punching out a bully on a school bus.
The film isn’t perfect. A romantic subplot is undercooked and the execution suffers in the third act, in which new characters are introduced on a whim and ‘Gifted’ further loses sight of its central premise. The message it wants to deliver is muddled and the film gets too caught up in the specific motivations of each character.
Those few script issues aside, ‘Gifted’ is a nicely filmed (and edited), heartfelt story that's as warm and insightful as it is funny, with fully developed characters perfectly cast with actors that deliver spot-on performances.