I already know how most critics are going to receive the new indie film GIFTED. They’ll say it plays on your emotions. Yes, this story about a child math prodigy that gets caught in a custody battle between her loving uncle and grandmother is definitely awash in sentimentality. It also has its share of cliches. But boy, does it have heart, as well as a mix of sweetness and sadness you don’t often encounter at the multiplex these days.
In small town coastal Florida, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is raising his seven year old niece Mary (McKenna Grace). When she shows advanced mathematical talent on her first day in school, Adler is offered a scholarship for Mary to a private school for gifted children. This genius comes as little surprise to Frank, since Mary is his sister Diane’s daughter, who showed the same aptitude all the way up to committing suicide when Mary was six months old. Frank turns the scholarship down, believing it will wreck the normal childhood he is attempting to provide Mary. He doesn’t want to see her end up unhappy and socially isolated like Diane. Enter Mary’s grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), absent since Mary was a baby, to seek custody. She has plans for her to be specially tutored to achieve her highest potential.
Adding complications and humor to the story, as well as more heft and nuance than their fairly stereotypical roles suggest, are Jenny Slate as a devoted grade-school teacher Bonnie, who becomes Frank’s romantic interest, and Octavia Spencer as neighbor Roberta Taylor, Frank’s tough-loving, yet kindhearted friend and a would-be aunt to Mary. Together with Evans, who shows once again he is made for more than just filling out superhero spandex, respected British thespian Duncan, and precocious newcomer Grace, this ensemble cast demands commitment and investment in the outcome from their audience. Charm, both individually and in various combinations, is the winning ingredient that proves enough to hold attention and keep it.
The film asks complicated questions about what it means to meet your potential, and about which is more important, advancing society or being happy. What if the one means not having the other? Gifted attempts to show the struggle those raising gifted children deal with, as they try to offer anything approaching normalcy to their charges. The educators sitting next to me during the screening believed this film did well in capturing what parents and caregivers experience both day to day, and in plans for the future, when raising gifted children. Our theater was filled with teachers for the gifted and talented, and they erupted in rapturous applause as the end credits rolled. An unscientific poll of them suggested Gifted met and surpassed their highest expectations.
So who’s up for hottie Chris Evans bringing tears to your eyes and giving you chuckles in equal measure as a self-sacrificing caregiver battling for the good of a precocious big-eyed grade-schooler? Did I mention Uncle Frank also cares for a rescued one-eyed cat? He may be too good to be true, but he’s compelling.
Let’s face it. We need the occasional, charming, albeit imperfect tearjerker that ends well, don’t we? Should we have to apologize for that? True, it is a bit heavy-handed, and lacks nuance. Gifted is well-acted, according to the teachers in the screening, educational, and without question, cathartic. Can’t that be reason enough for it to not only grace the screens of our local movie houses, but get us there to see it?