” 3+3? REALLY? What kind of school is this?”
Nutshell: A sweet, simple tale of a little girl who is far from simple, but very sweet. Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) and an extremely talented cast elevate this trope-heavy tale, making it a extremely watchable slice-of-life story. And I’m not just saying that because I fell in love with the one-eyed cat. Grade: A-
Story: “Quiet damaged hot guy” Frank (Chris Evans) tries to raise his crazy smart, crazy adorable niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) and give her a “normal” life outside of mathematical think tanks that could swallow her youthful joy whole. But when his mother decides that Mary is destined for greatness, things start to get complex.
Genre I’d put it in: Adorable Kids With Adorable Cats Living Extraordinary Lives
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Original.
Gotta say: Math has never been my strong suit. Ever. Ever ever. But much like Hidden Figures, Gifted doesn’t shy away from scary symbols or complex calculations, but still keeps focus on the characters and story. And while the story isn’t complex – it’s the well-worn but effective Help The Young Child thang – there’s an emotional depth to the film that anchors it, keeping it from venturing into movie-of-the-week territory.
What does it mean to be a genius? Should we expect greatness, and push people toward it, simply because they have gifts most others do not? What does it mean to be present in the world? Gifted focuses on these ideas, and while the film doesn’t provide an answer to ever situation, it wraps up its own story nicely, while giving viewers a lot to think about after the credits roll.
As the young prodigy Mary, Mckenna Grace is a revelation. Her cherubic face can show childlike petulance as well as intellectual superiority, sometimes within seconds of each other. Gifted relies on this young actor to shoulder the weight of the story, and she does it admirably. So is the realization that Chris Evans is much more than Captain America. His portrayal of Uncle Frank is layered, nuanced, and all the things that hint at the possibility of a serious dramatic career once he decides to hang up the tights. Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate are less of a revelation, as we all know they’re extraordinary performers. Spencer plays neighbor/substitute mom Roberta with the right touch of love, support, and protection.
Kudos go to the casting director, who realized the impressive, affable chemistry between Evans, Spencer and Slate. And as the worst Math Stage Mom on record, Lindsay Duncan’s Evelyn has a shell so impenetrable it’s almost impossible to crack, even when she needs it to. The scene where Spencer’s Roberta and Duncan’s Evelyn is a master class in nuance; it seems simple, and barely a word is spoken. But volumes of emotion pass between them. I think it’s my favorite scene of the film that doesn’t have a ginger cat in it.
While “what do we do about Mary” is the man storyline here, there are subplots that tend to only get real screen time in indie films. So it’s nice to see these topics addressed here. The thin line between genius and mental illness. The limits that others should have on determining what’s best for someone else. The balance between the betterment of the world, and a life truly worth living. All this, and a one-eyed ginger cat that steals every single scene he’s in. (Vive la Fred!)
Back to my earlier comment about the simple, trope-heavy tale. Yeah, there’s a whole lot of by the numbers here. And things wrap up a bit too easily once all is said and done. But Gifted hits all the high notes; cute kid, big-hearted adult, sweetly moving Cat Stevens song. (Which is “The Wind”, btw. And nobody can get it out of their head once it’s in there. You’re not alone.) Watching Frank try to keep Mary away from the pain and loneliness her mother went through grabs at heartstrings and yanks hard. And why not? Frank sees something truly special in Mary; her heart. And that’s the real takeaway from this film.
That, and that cat. Dammit, I love that cat.
#Protip: Though the story is set in Florida, the film was shot in Tybee Island, and Savannah, Georgia.