I didn’t expect much from “Gifted,” a small little movie with a minimal ad campaign (you’ve probably never heard of it either) which appeared out of thin air. I also didn’t expect how quickly the film managed to gain my attention and earn my respect. This smaller scale story from director Marc Webb has such an intensely personal vibe that if in the hands of another filmmaker, it could’ve (and probably would’ve) gone horribly wrong. The reason why this astute heartstring-tugger succeeds is because it rings genuine and true.
Chris Evans gives a quietly understated, emotional, and effective performance as Frank, a single man raising sassy child prodigy mathematician Mary (Mckenna Grace). When Mary’s first grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) takes action to ensure the child gets every opportunity to excel, a legal custody battle between Frank and his overbearing mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) ensues. That’s putting the plot in the most simple of terms, but the script here is smart, clever, and isn’t dumbed down in any way. It keeps you guessing yet also entertained with an unexpected revelation at the end and some really funny, breezy one-liners for laughs.
There’s not a slacker in the bunch when it comes to the dependable ensemble cast (which also includes Octavia Spencer in her trademark role as a strong, proud woman who cries a lot). Slate is terrific as a caring first grade teacher, and Duncan offers up plenty of harsh verbal cruelty with a sharp bite. The real star of the show is the extremely talented Grace, who reminds me very much of a young Dakota Fanning. You’ll love her character as soon as you meet her. She’s a child actor to watch.
While it’s predictable in premise, the film manages several surprise twists. Tom Flynn has written an intelligent, honest and wise screenplay that feels real and authentic, reminding me much of the insight laid out in Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea,” yet without the unspeakable woe. This isn’t a tragic story by any means, but it has the potential to make some folks sob (so bring your tissues). Educators will likely respond to the undertones of how society should deal with its super smart kids, feminists will admire the heavy-hitting elements of true “girl power,” and animal lovers will be fond of the positive attitude portrayed toward shelter pets.
This family-friendly drama is sweet, smart, funny, and charming, the cinematic equivalent of a snuggly, cozy sweater. It’s an emotional manipulator for sure, but I delighted in being manipulated every step of the way.