Octavia Spencer is once again appearing in a film about female math genuises. But is Gifted in the same class as Hidden Figures?
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
The subject matter may not be as lofty as the issues addressed in Hidden Figures – but Gifted does indeed get high marks for a compelling story, appealing characters and a well-crafted screenplay. Though the film’s photos and trailers suggests that Gifted smacks of one of those sappy Nicholas Sparks concoctions, decorated with perfectly sun-kissed sands and seas, starring a handsome, chiseled, yet damaged loner … in actuality, the film effortlessly blends heart, humor and substance.
When Frank (Chris Evans) took on the guardianship of his sister’s infant daughter Mary (McKenna Grace), he hoped that he could raise her as a normal kid. But given his family’s DNA, the fact that the now 7-year-old Mary is unquestionably a math whiz, his decision to continue living in a small coastal Floridian town, keeping her “normal” yet intellectually stymied, is causing him great concern. Should he steer her to the sober, isolated world of academia, ever mindful that the curse of genius drove his perfectionist sister to suicide? Vowing to protect her no matter what, when Frank’s asked to express his greatest fear, he immediately replies, “… that I’ll run Mary’s life.”
It doesn’t make matters any easier when Mary’s estranged grandmother Evelyn shows up on Frank’s doorstep, intent on spiriting the child away to higher learning institutions in Boston.
With this film, we’re reminded of director Marc Webb’s talent to create emotionally resonant films. Yet after his 2009 hit film 500 Days of Summer, Webb flew over to the Marvel Universe and helmed 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and the ensuing 2014 sequel. Now, with Gifted, Webb touches back down on earth. Per Webb: “My father had been involved in mathematics for a very long time, so I had an immediate physical and emotional connection to the material … I had been working in big movies for a long time at that point and I wanted something simple, something that got back to the roots of what I love about film, which is character, and then this came along.”
“This” was Gifted, writer Tom Flynn’s passion project that landed on Hollywood’s celebrated Black List in 2014.
Along with Webb, another escapee from the Marvel Universe is lead actor Chris Evans, appearing just as comfortable in his own skin as in his Captain America superhero suit. Initially, his Frank appears to be far more brawn than brains … but then, when he opens his mouth, the breezy intelligence and wit negate all first impressions. Evans delivers a beautifully tempered performance as the dedicated, loving uncle who’s wholly appreciative of all of his niece’s qualities, the good, the bad and the obstreperous. Parenting as best he can, Mary his been his sole focus for 7 years. When he momentarily expresses frustration at not having any time to call his own, it’s understandable. And welcome … human saints can be rather difficult to like.
The relationships in Gifted are authentic, and no one’s a bad guy. Not even Evelyn, the exacting grandmother (Lindsay Duncan, sensational as the acrimonious theater critic in Birdman). A force in her own right, with motivations that initially appear to be coldblooded, the filmmakers peel the onion, taking their time to reveal Evelyn’s multiple layers underneath the rigidity. That said, Duncan delivers a monologue in the third act that’s a jaw-dropping tour de force.
Rather than playing it safe and casting a go-to vapid blonde, the filmmakers chose comedienne Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) to portray Mary’s teacher/Frank’s potential love interest. Her performance is dead-on, filling every pause with meaning. When she momentarily stumps Mary with a math problem, we see her doing the math in her head, trying mightily to keep one step ahead. When she first meets Frank, and he says, “Do I look gifted to you?”, we read her thoughts as she checks out the handsome man standing in front of her. She may as well be shouting, Gifted? You bet!
But so much of this movie lives and dies on the portrayal of child prodigy Mary. Of course, the precociousness is baked in, but this character is so much more. And Mckenna Grace is faultless as she transitions from silliness to outrage to utter despair. When she catches an adult making a mistake – which is often – Mckenna’s sly, twisted grin lights up her face, conveying nothing less than sheer delight. This young actress is an absolute wonder.
Unfortunately, Octavia Spencer’s role as Frank’s landlady and Mary’s sometime babysitter/unofficial maternal figure is surprisingly truncated. It’s great to see her, as always … but in this film, we simply don’t see her enough.
Sure, Gifted leans toward the trope of the poor but happy child who’d have a better shot at a successful life if he/she were sent to live with a moneybags relative (think The Champ, Running on Empty, Captain Fantastic). But it’s these particular characters, with their specific emotional make-up and personality – not to mention Mary’s one-eyed fat cat named Fred — that make Gifted all the more rewarding.
Rating on a scale of 5 math problems that only Mary could solve: 4
Release date: April 12, 2017
Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: Tom Flynn
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 101 minutes
Here’s the trailer for Gifted: