The formula for movies about “special” kids is given a clever flip on its head with “Gifted,” a cuter-than-cute comedy about a very smart child and the people wrestling over control of her future.
Usually, the parent figure is over-matched, somebody who needs to be convinced their child is brilliant. See “Little Man Tate.” Catch the upcoming “The Book of Henry.”
And Frank (Chris Evans), the marine mechanic/father-figure to young Mary (the precocious Mckenna Grace) absolutely, positively REFUSES to let educators use the “G” word about his young ward.
But it’s not because he’s not smart enough to know “gifted” when he sees it. It turns out, he’s a well-educated deep thinker who home-schooled her until he saw the need for her to socialize, “try being a kid,” grow up to “have compassion for others.” It turns out, she’s the child of a math prodigy, grandchild of other top flight academics.
Frank’s fight for Mary, and with her teacher (Jenny Slate), her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) and the courts, is over Mary’s one shot at having a balanced “normal” life. His mother knows “the price you pay for greatness.” Frank isn’t willing to make Mary pay it.
Evans has such a light charm about him that it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t found more for him to do outside of thrillers and tights-wearing comic book pictures. As “the quiet, damaged hot guy” in this Florida coastal town (that looks like Georgia, because it is), Evans’ Frank rarely loses his cool, never hits a laugh line too hard.
Mary’s fretting over being sentenced to regular elementary school, but Frank has a winning argument. “You’re gonna meet kids today you can borrow money from for the rest of your live.”
Director Marc Webb of “(500) Days of Summer” gives Slate an earthy warmth through her young teacher wardrobe and some incredibly revealing close-ups. Bonnie, the teacher, is put-off by the rude kid who is disrupting her class, and plainly rattled when she challenges Mary with math problems the seven-year-old can do in her head.
With one look, Slate gets across Bonnie’s memory of her higher calling. She will find extra work for Mary. She will pay a little extra attention to her. She will bond with the brilliant, mouthy brat. And she will talk to “Dad” (actually uncle) and try to convince him of what she sees as the right way forward.
Mckenna is capably adorable as something of an impertinent caricature of a gifted child, and she’s not alone in the “caricature as cast member” in “Gifted.” Mary’s profanity and wise-beyond-her-years impatience and compassion are meant to buttress the film’s most troubling thesis — the “nature over nurture” thing. Mary’s mal-adjustments aren’t limited to rudeness. She’s not above defending the bullied and praising classmates whose work she recognizes as superior. Yes, she “learned” that. Somehow.
Duncan’s British-born Eastern elite grandmother is so broadly drawn as to be laughably arch. Why not give her a mustache to twirl?
Conversely, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer‘s Earth Mama neighbor, teaching the little girl to sing along with the greats of Soul music, is entirely too on the nose. Love Octavia, but this role gives her nothing but likability and a paycheck.
Evans is convincingly rugged, convincingly smart and convincingly wearied from the weight of deciding this child’s future. But Webb seriously lets him down in the “boat mechanic” scene. Watch Evans vigorously work a screwdriver on a power boat, keeping his hands, the product placement outboard motor (It can’t actually be BROKEN, can it? That would entail taking off the engine cover.) and Mckenna in the frame of the shot.
He’s screw-drivering empty air. There’s nothing on a boat to screw, hammer or wrench within his reach.
But Evans is so lovable you understand why a child would climb him like a jungle gym. He has an ease about him that almost makes you forgive the movie’s first HUGE misstep. Yeah, it involves his child’s teacher and sex. Like so much else about “Gifted,” that’s pre-ordained and easily guessed.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Lindsay Duncan
Credits: Directed by Marc Webb, written by Tom Flynn. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:41