Synopsis – Frank, a single man raising his child prodigy niece Mary, is drawn into a custody battle with his mother.
My Take – Films based on child prodigies are rarely good, while some films such as Hidden Figures, Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fisher, and Shine have worked for their simpler takes, this Mark Webb directed film despite the occasional doses of melodrama, show us yet again that a film depicting human conditions in the right way is always going to be worth a watch. This latest feature from director Mark Webb also marks a return to form of this Indie director, far away from his The Amazing Spider-Man debacles, and more in the territory of his earlier hit, 500 Days of Summer. This is a very human story that examines a dynamic and debatable social issue, perhaps in a biased manner, yet in a way that should provoke thought and conversation among those who watch it. On the surface, it feels like a blend of Matilda, Good Will Hunting, and Captain Fantastic, with a little mix of The Help in the manner how it managed to masquerade as a feel-good movie but was in fact a deeper and less uplifting than it actually seemed. While the film does not contain a lot of surprise elements, it does win over with its powerful statement, outstanding acting and stunning cinematography, along with themes revolving around romance, friendship, strong family values and a right amount of humor to keep the dramatic moments still light. As the summer box office season has just begun a multitude of blockbusters are going to start hitting the screen, among the crowd this little film is seriously a sweet breath of fresh air. The story follows Frank Adler (Chris Evans), a former Boston University professor of Philosophy, who all this years has been raising 10-year-old child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in low-key small town Florida. The two lead a happy enough existence with a one-eyed cat called Fred and make ends meet by Frank’s talent of fixing boats. Despite homeschooling her all this years with the help of landlady/best friend/babysitter Roberta (Octavia Spencer), in order make Mary more socially acceptable, Frank decides to send her to a public school, despite Roberta disapproval and fears.
As expected on the 1st day of school, Mary becomes understandably frustrated by the curriculum and ignorance of her grade level and ends up inciting her class teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) who, after questioning Mary, discovers that she is in fact, gifted. After some googling on both Frank and Mary, Bonnie learns that Mary’s mother, Diane, was a brilliant mathematician who ended up committing suicide shortly after Mary’s birth. Enter Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), an equally brilliant and intellectual mathematician, who along with Mary’s school principal try to explain to Frank why a high priced special private school is the right place for her to develop her skills, to which Frank disagrees as unlike Diane he wants Mary to lead a normal childhood away from all the pressures of being a genius. However, Evelyn has already made up her mind that Mary would continue Diane’s legacy and calls Frank to court through a custodial case. From the very beginning of the film, the stage is set to show us what kind of relationship Frank Adler has with his niece Mary. He isn’t just her guardian; he’s her friend, she trusts him, loves him, knows he’ll take care of her, and believes with all her heart that whatever he does is best for her because he loves her (even when it involves doing something she doesn’t want to do, like going to public school). Throughout the movie, we get to see little snippets of Frank and Mary’s life together, and it becomes evident early on that they love each other very much. What I loved about the film is that you never lose sight of that fact. Here, director Marc Webb elevates an average story into an excellent cinema. His projection of the artistic side of an otherwise math genius was great and something to take away from the movie. Employing none of the gimmickry that goosed up his debut feature, (500) Days Of Summer, Webb plays it safe, straight, and literal, with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh largely tasked with making sure that the homes look homey and the sunshine looks sunny. Besides, writer Tom Flynn shows impressive skill in writing effective and realistic dialogue and especially with presenting characters and names in a way that makes them easy to remember & it’s good to see how he is less concerned with stacking decks and forcing character motivation than with portraying human behavior. Especially when he portrays a side that shows Frank can’t simply feel guilty about the death of his sister, even though he must have played a role in her suicide, having ignored a phone call on that fateful night. However, Evelyn can’t just help but be an overbearing parent—she is not concerned with anything other grooming little Mary to continue her daughter’s work on the Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness problem, which remains still unsolved in real life. She hasn’t even seen the girl since infancy before showing up on Frank and Mary’s doorstep unannounced and uninvited. Luckily, the humor kept the movie light and fun to watch. I loved the way the relationship of Frank and Mary was projected. Some of the scenes, like the hospital one, were beautifully conceptualized and executed. My favorite scene really stands out due to remarkable lighting and camera work. The scene really doesn’t contribute to the plot, but the cinematography makes it one of the most excellent in the film. The scene shows Mary riding on Frank’s shoulders. Behind them, a giant sunset completely fills the sky. The lighting from the setting sun comes out stunningly dazzling. Even though it doesn’t add to the complexity of the story, the scene is very impressive and demonstrates the closeness of the uncle and his niece. The dialogue between the leads are both comedic and thoughtful. Even though there are no true climactic moments or ‘explosive moments’ where the story really rockets off, it manages to be a very subtle and ‘normal’ movie, perhaps to reflect the central theme of the film in which this child prodigy attempts to live a normal life despite her uniqueness.
The best discussions after this movie would revolve around what’s best for the child, like should she be deprived of a higher-level education just in order to live within a more normalized social environment? Do the adults even care what the child wants or just finding ways to fuel their own ego? In the basic battle of home school vs public school vs private school, who wins? Should every kid be pushed to their academic – or artistic – or athletic – limits? There are many questions to be asked, however the answers are more complicated. Even when it veers into predictable territory, however, the film works. It’s a feel-good film that honestly feels good, and even when it rings a bit hollow, it doesn’t stay that way for long. That shouldn’t be a total surprise; a cast and crew this talented came together to make something unlikely to shatter records, turn into a franchise, or win a slew of awards. If they’re not here for glory or fat stacks of cash, it’s probably a project in which they believe. Even if that’s not true, it sure feels that way, and along with our leads’ rapport, that makes this film a piece of emotional claptrap that’s entirely worth seeing. While some may complain, the ending is too pat or cute, the larger point is that there can be a resolution where both parties win. But it all is emotionally draining with an element of doubt more a condition of human nature than a court of law. However, it cannot be ignored that the film’s weak points waters down to the story. Even though the film is unique from other stories about genius kids, by focusing on the family values and relationships instead of Mary’s exceptional mathematical skills, it still comes out very predictable and rather simple. The main conflict never really feels like a major issue but rather, just a side story. Plus, the sub plot of Mary’s teacher Bonnie, who predictably falls for Frank feels forced into the narrative, even though Evans and Slate‘s chemistry is sizzling, it seems like an unnecessary angle to take. Despite these small issues, the film is widely entertaining mainly due to its performances. Chris Evans once again demonstrates that he is a much better actor than he is usually credited for. Evans may not be carrying Captain America’s shield in this movie, but he’s still pretty heroic here. Just when I think I can’t possibly like him more, he hits a home run. He brought a natural, warm, smart, charming quality to his character, Frank, and as the movie progressed he lets the audience see the vulnerability and depth of his character & truly makes you feel for the guy. Mckenna Grace, the youngest actress of the group, was absolutely brilliant as Mary. She managed to pull me in from her very first line, and was so convincing that I had to continue to remind myself that she was acting. Octavia Spencer continues to play herself, the typical strong, sassy, kind, funny, loving woman. Jenny Slate is also really good here! She is an excellent actress with more range than most comic actress out there. Lindsay Duncan plays her pseudo-villain role with enough depth. On the whole, ‘Gifted’ is a wonderfully executed film that works mainly due to its heartwarming tale, gorgeous cinematography and brilliant acting.
Directed – Marc Webb
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 101 minutes