Overview: A man grapples with the difficult process of raising his highly intelligent niece. 2017; Fox Searchlight Pictures; PG-13; 101 minutes.
Uneven Emotionality: Gifted, the story of an uncle raising his prodigy of a niece, has all of the ingredients of a crowd-pleaser designed to pull at the heartstrings of the audience. Included in these ingredients is a precocious child prodigy, and numerous courtroom scenes that will determine whether her uncle should be her legal guardian. The aforementioned child, Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), is presented unevenly. One example of this is the constantly changing maturity level of the character from scene-to-scene. In the interactions specifically with her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), there is a warmth communicated to the audience that helps us root for them. However, the moments in the classroom are delivered in such a ham-fisted manner, it becomes difficult to take the dramatic moments seriously. Also uneven is the subplot involving the custody of Mary, which unfolds as a battle between her uncle and her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan). These scenes strain credulity. Prosecutors consistently berate witnesses for the purposes of false drama and defense attorneys employ gags, such as using a computer for a Google search on the stand. However, this courtroom farce does create the opportunity for Lindsay Duncan to perfect the character of a cold, calculating matriarch with emotion bubbling just under the surface.
Genre Switching: Tonally, Gifted, makes some odd choices. Specifically, a predictable romantic subplot is employed. Mary’s teacher, played by Jenny Slate, becomes involved with Frank. On the positive side, these two now-former real life romantic partners have undeniable chemistry together. Director Marc Webb, probably best known for the unique romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, is more than capable of creating opportunities for these two to endear themselves to one another and to the audience. In a pivotal scene, the couple shares drinks and details from their past. In the hands of another director, this could feel forced or even insincere. But, with the combination of Webb and his two amiable stars, it is easy to get swept up in the charm of the moment. However, the romance seems slightly out-of-step with the tone of Frank’s home life with his niece. Chris Evans is forced to play stoic and snarky in successive scenes, and we can almost feel him gritting his teeth to push through it. Octavia Spencer, portraying Frank’s landlord, Roberta, is solid as usual. However, her character teeters just on the precipice of the sassy Black woman stereotype, and frankly, she deserves better at this point in her career. Some of the film’s finest moments involve Roberta and Mary warmly connecting, enabling Mary to finally feel like a child.
As Simple As It Looks: There are many moments in Gifted that are focused on eliciting our emotion. Unfortunately, most of these are telegraphed so far in advance that the emotional heft is completely undercut. Most frustratingly, there is a completely forced moment in a hospital that seems to only exist to solve emotional problems between Mary and her guardian quickly. This narrative reductiveness is a major flaw in Gifted. Guardianship, for a child—prodigy or otherwise—is always a complex issue, and it deserves attention and care that Gifted is not willing to give it onscreen.
Overall: Strong performances from Chris Evans, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, and Lindsay Duncan cannot keep the saccharine-sweet story of Gifted from hitting predictable emotional beats.
Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures