×

Film Review: ‘Gifted’

Fresh off the 'Spider-Man' series, Marc Webb directs a drama about a child prodigy, but it's as formulaic as his blockbusters.

With:
Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer.
Release Date:
Apr 7, 2017

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4481414/

There are several ways that an adventurous director can get swallowed up by Hollywood, and the career of Marc Webb is a case in point. Eight years ago, he made “(500) Days of Summer,” a love story told out of order — it was like a relationship drama on iPod shuffle — that was so freshly done it would have been a wistful, revealing movie even if the scenes had unfolded chronologically. The film catapulted Webb onto the A-list, where he was handed the privilege of making “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014) — staggeringly unnecessary, blockbuster-by-the-numbers reboots that would have sapped the spirit of Orson Welles. So that’s one way to get swallowed. Here’s another: Webb’s new feature, “Gifted,” tells the story of a child prodigy (it costars Chris Evans from the “Captain America” films), and it’s a small-scale movie driven by dialogue and acting and emotion. So Webb, theoretically, is getting back in touch with his filmmaking roots. Except for one thing: The movie is a bit of a crock — a stacked-deck family drama that’s all bits and pieces stuck together out of a screenwriter’s handbook. It’s watchable, and Webb stages it with polish and taste, but in a larger sense he gets swallowed again.

Mary Adler, played by the avid and charming McKenna Grace, is six years old, and she’s a genius, able to solve differential equations in a millisecond, with a mind that soars over that of her child peers. Yet that’s why her uncle, Frank (Evans), a Florida boat repairman who has raised (and home-schooled) her himself, now insists on enrolling Mary in the first grade of an ultra-ordinary elementary school. He’s got his own reasons for not wanting her to be stigmatized as “special.”

On that score, he’s out of luck. The very first day of class, Mary impresses her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), with her extraordinary skills at addition, then multiplication, then her ability to talk back like an alien who has found herself among lesser beings. This leads to Frank and Bonnie meeting up and falling for each other, even though they know the whole parent/teacher relationship thing doesn’t feel quite kosher. And it leads to a key relative swooping into the picture — Mary’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who wants the girl to be raised like the extraordinary brainiac wizard she is. Mary’s genius, you see, runs in the family. Her mother was a famous math prodigy, but at 22, shortly after Mary was born, she came to a tragic end as a result of it, and that’s where Frank stepped in. Evelyn has returned because she, too, is a mathematician, as well as a sparkling and cultivated British snob who wants the child to embrace her “superior” nature.

Precocious child actors can be annoying, especially when they’re playing kids brilliant beyond their years, but McKenna Grace, with appraising eyes, her top front teeth missing, and a sugary but brisk delivery that is never less than spontaneous, is like the Drew Barrymore of “E.T.” on speed-dial. When Mary gripes that children her age bore her, it isn’t just haughty code for how smart she is; you really feel her alienation — her sadness at being a girl apart. Yet the movie, like Jodie Foster’s similarly themed “Little Man Tate” (1991), doesn’t deepen or explore its central whiz kid’s experience. When Frank balks at the chance to place Mary (with full scholarship) at a nearby school for super-advanced students, it sets up “Gifted” as a custody battle that’s really about the issue of how Mary should be raised.

Once the movie gets into court, the hokum flies. It doesn’t really parse that Frank’s status as a guardian could be subjected to such a serious legal challenge. He’s the brother of Mary’s mother, and for close to seven years he has been a scrupulous, compassionate parental figure. (Meanwhile, Mary’s grandmother ignored her, and her biological father has never even seen her.) But there’s a trumped-up moment where it’s revealed that Frank has no health insurance. This is a screenwriter’s cheap gambit, since it contradicts Frank’s highly devoted and responsible character as it’s been presented to us. Basically, the movie has to figure out a way to separate Frank and Mary, to get our tear ducts flowing. And even then, it can’t accomplish the mission without Frank’s (contrived) help: The arrangement he suddenly agrees to is so wrong that the audience isn’t thinking “Oh, no!” so much as “Say, what?”

Chris Evans, abashed and rumpled, with a grease monkey’s can’t-be-bothered-to-shave beard, gives an engaged performance, exuding a homespun warmth we haven’t seen in the “Captain America” films. And the Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan takes the role of Evelyn the upper-crust witch, who could have been a pure villain, and poises her between the dastardly and the enlightened. Evelyn, who crushed the life out of her daughter, doesn’t want to make that mistake a second time; by the end, there’s room even for her in the family circle of love. “Gifted” wants to be an “honest” tearjerker, but it’s as plotted out as an equation on a blackboard. It’s the undergirding of formula that roots the movie in the commercial marketplace, but that may ultimately limit its appeal.

Film Review: 'Gifted'

Reviewed at Magno, New York, March 29, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production: A Fox Searchlight release of a FilmNation Entertainment, Grade A Entertainment production. Producers: Karen Lunder, Andy Cohen. Executive producers: Molly Allen, Glen Basner, Ben Browning.

Crew: Director: Marc Webb. Screenplay: Tom Flynn. Camera (color, widescreen): Stuart Dryburgh. Editor: Bill Pankow.

With: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer.

More Film

  • Don Edkins, documentary filmmaker

    Documentary Filmmaker Don Edkins on ‘Creating an African Voice’ 

    DURBAN–For the 10th Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, a new strand was created to look at the unique challenges and opportunities facing documentary filmmakers in Africa. The two-day program, Durban Does Docs, offers a series of conversations, seminars and workshops with an intensive focus on the aesthetics, funding, distribution [...]

  • A Faithful Man

    Film Review: 'A Faithful Man'

    French actor Louis Garrel has been married twice, first to Iranian talent Golshifteh Farahani, and now to model-cum-actress Laetitia Casta. He has also directed two features, the first a free-wheeling love-triangle comedy called “Two Friends” in which Garrel plays the cad who comes between his best friend and the object of his obsession (played by [...]

  • LGBTQ Film Festival Outfest Opens With

    LGBTQ Film Festival Outfest Opens With Documentary About Gay Porn Shops Circus of Books

    Granted, the red carpet at the opening night of Outfest in DTLA may not have been the most star-studded but it was without a doubt the most diverse, inclusive and, yes, fabulous. “I’ve never been here before,” admitted “RuPaul’s Drag Race” vet Trixie Mattel, who stars in the documentary “Moving Parts.” “It’s supposed to be [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Russ Tamblyn's Career Had Legs After Childhood

    With an acting career that spans work for Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph Losey to Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, Russ Tamblyn’s creativity and longevity is proof that there’s life after child stardom. In Tamblyn’s case, there’s also been a bounty of juicy film and TV roles long after his legendary legs no longer kicked [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Booksmart Director

    Film News Roundup: Olivia Wilde to Direct Holiday Comedy for Universal

    In today’s film news roundup, Olivia Wilde has landed another directing gig following “Booksmart” and revenge thriller “Seaside” and “Woodstock: The Directors Cut” get August release dates. PROJECT LAUNCH Olivia Wilde will direct and produce an untitled holiday comedy project for Universal Pictures with her “Booksmart” partner Katie Silberman. Universal outbid five other studios for [...]

  • Choas Charles Mansion and the CIA

    Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama 'Chaos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the grisly murders executed by the followers of Charles Manson, Amazon Studios has optioned film rights to a nonfiction title about a journalist who spent decades obsessively following the case. The studio will adapt “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” from [...]

  • Sword of Trust

    Marc Maron on 'Sword of Trust,' Lynn Shelton and Conspiracy Theories

    Marc Maron has interviewed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama, so he’s probably learned a few things about being a good interview. Of course, as he points out, he generally has over an hour to talk leisurely speak with his guests in his home and draw out stories beyond the public narrative; it’s a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content