“I’m not so afraid of losing something that I won’t try havin’ it.” ~Zoe Washburne, Firefly
“The things that we love tell us what we are.” ~Thomas Aquinas
Gifted, directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man I & II), is movie about a math prodigy but I want to forgo all the math puns and get the heart of the story which is the struggle to keep a family together. Heady stuff, right? So while trying to write a review worthy of this movie, I took a look at what other critics were saying, not because I needed help making up my mind about the film, but I was curious what stood out for them. That research led me to having to Google the term “emotional manipulation,” (then added “in movies” as I wasn’t looking for relationship advice), since I saw it in a few reviews and I was confused. Isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place? To be delighted, scared, moved, inspired, to cheer for the underdog, or to delight in the villains’ defeat? As long as the story makes sense and has a resolution, usually a happy one, we leave having lived a lifetime in under two hours and sometimes it’s a movie that leaves us just a little bit changed, with a new perspective to mull over for a while, and if we’re really lucky, enriched. But manipulated?
The audience is aware going in that the film is about boat repairman Frank, (played with honesty by Chris Evans), who is raising Mary, a charming yet challenging 6 year old math prodigy, (Mckenna Grace); a situation whose status quo becomes upended when Frank’s estranged mother, (played with chilly poise by Lindsay Duncan), arrives and tries to insert herself into their lives. Frank wants Mary to have a real childhood, something his sister Diane apparently wanted for her daughter, while Evelyn, “or grandmother”, thinks Mary should be using her gift to the fullest to the exclusion of everything else and is willing to go to great lengths to get her way. It’s not like we don’t know the movie is probably going to break our heart just a little bit.
Gifted is presented as a typical custody battle movie yet the script by Tom Flynn doesn’t depict the combatants typically. The story moves along quickly and doesn’t drag out the drama of the court battle because that isn’t really what it was about. We see the necessary steps of the court case, including mention of a home visit and a session with a caseworker for Mary, but the results of those threads are left untied as they aren’t necessary to the story. Each player has a turn on the stand, but the testimony only raises questions. Rather than tell the audience who Frank and Evelyn are, it allows the audience to decide that for themselves. Evelyn could either be a domineering woman attempting to live her dreams through her children, or someone that has regrets and will do anything to make sure her children don’t either. Frank could be the stubborn, vindictive son, taking out his anger on his mother through his niece, or a man truly trying to do his best for the little girl even though he constantly feels out of his depth. Neither is perfect nor are they depicted based solely on their opposing positions. Despite their conflict there is affection and familial love, albeit strained by both current and past experience. There simply is no true villain. Just two people who want the same thing, only how they want it & how they go about it is the difference.
Supporting Frank is Roberta, his landlady and sometimes free childcare provider, played by Oscar winning Octavia Spencer. Her devotion to Mary is obvious, as is her frustration that her opinion ultimately doesn’t matter as she is not a family member in the eyes of the law. She believes in Frank but it comes with serious reservations over his decisions. Frank also has Bonnie, Mary’s first-grade teacher, (Jenny Slate), who unintentionally sets the entire confrontation between mother and son in motion but who always had Mary’s and Frank’s best interests at heart.
Gifted is sweet without being saccharin and I left the theater feeling heartened by the outcome. What I did not feel was manipulated. Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace are a winning formula as Frank and Mary. (I said I wanted to forgo the puns, didn’t say I would though.) They are delightful as the parent/child pairing, even when the going got rough between them. The supporting cast felt sincere, especially Octavia Spencer who innately sparkles even when she’s frustrated with her favorite tenant, and in the end, Fred the one eyed cat saves the day.
I would definitely watch this again. Gifted opens in selected theaters the 7th of April and is set for wide release on the 12th. If you’re looking for a little assurance in the goodness of people, even people who disagree, I recommend getting a ticket.