Easter weekend 2017 saw absolute domination by “Fate of the Furious” at the box office, which may have overshadowed the other major release of the weekend, the drama film “Gifted”. While small in scale and budget, “Gifted” drives home a simple, emotionally driven plot about a gifted young girl whose family battles for her future. Surprisingly, “Gifted” is very appropriately named as it is indeed gifted with a talented cast and engaging story that makes it one of the year’s first great dramas without being too over the top.
“Gifted” follows the story of Mary Adler, an intellectually gifted 7-year-old played by Mckenna Grace, who enters public school for the first time as the insistence of her guardian and uncle Frank Adler, played by Chris Evans. When Mary’s gifted nature with mathematics is noticed by her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson, played by Jenny Slate, her grandmother Evelyn, played by Lindsay Duncan, comes back into her life hoping to gain custody to embrace Mary’s intelligence to the fullest while Frank fights to allow Mary a simple life at the request of Frank’s sister, and Mary’s mother, who was equally gifted before her death. What unfolds is a tasteful family drama that blends emotional depth and dramatic tension quite well as we learn more about Mary, her mother’s struggles, and the complicated relationship between Frank and the grandmother, Evelyn, in the courtroom.
Lets start with the negatives, because there’s a lot to love with this film and I want to leave it on a high note. For all intents and purposes “Gifted” is a pretty generic film and story. While it shines on its own merit, it breaks little new ground in its own genre which can make it easy to overlook. For all of its great performances and genuinely powerful yet subtle dialogue and moments it does, at times, try to create forces emotional responses with an effective score and a few forced conflicts, including the always predictable child/parent or guardian conflict as Frank at one point lashes out at Mary for interrupting his own life unexpectedly.
The film also has an off sense of pacing. There’s no sense of time as we watch the court battle play out and to that end seems very one dimensional and, at times, rushed, saying here’s the story and here’s what happened assuming that the time it took for settle things wouldn’t impact Mary or the story. Mary had to watch two of her family members battle it out for her custody over a week, a month, or a year and after all that she seems the results. These little details factor in to this little girls mentality in the situation, and the viewer’s perspective. The end of the film also seemed a bit rushed as a rather predictable deus ex machina comes into play to make everything right.
Now for all those flaws “Gifted” is a truly great story to watch unfold with a powerfully talented and committed cast bringing out every ounce of charm the movie has to offer. Chris Evans and the extremely talented youngster Mckenna Grace make an amazing team on screen as they have conversations about faith, youth, and life while sharing a few uplifting laughs. Their chemistry is astounding as they play off of each other from scene to scene and share some powerful moments that add to the emotional depth of the relationship and story and the struggles each of them are facing in their simple lives. Add in supporting characters like the always-lovely Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate and it’s easy to get invested in the world of the Adlers.
Lindsay Duncan as the grandmother, Evelyn, should not be overlooked as the antagonist figure of the film who viewers will probably have a hard time liking or hating. Evelyn and Frank’s relationship is so well balanced that it prevents the film from becoming heavy handed with the family drama, for the most part, and shows these two individuals as humans trying to do what’s best for a mutual loved one. Even when it seems Evelyn is only interested in Mary for her intellectual gifts we still get a moment where she realizes how she has been acting and has a bit of redemption for what she understands was her misguided motivations and expectations for Mary.
Of course the star of the show is Mckenna Grace who portrays the young intellectual Mary to absolute perfection. We see a 7-year-old who is torn between being a child and being a genius, both from her outside influences and her own desires as a young mathematician. She sees school as a waste of time and finds it difficult to socialize with her fellow children, but as the movie progresses we see Mary mature as she comes to understand the struggles her family has and that sometimes it’s alright to be normal and special at the same time.
“Gifted” honestly surprised me. I went in expecting an over-the-top drama using the previews as my guide and what I found was an impressively subtle and touching journey as we see the Adler family try to decide what’s best for Mary, a child who has to deal with the awkwardness and expectations of being a one-in-a-billion intellectual mind. Powerful performances, great dialogue, and thought provoking themes of family, forgiveness, and self-identity all make for a surprisingly uplifting and engaging film that I personally can’t wait to experience again.