GIFTED – Review
In just a couple of days the Summer blockbuster season will get a big jump-start (hey Spring’s not yet a month old) when those magnificent men (and women) in their flying “muscle-car” machines start spinning their wheels and defying gravity at the multiplex. As they rev their engines here’s a quiet little “heart-tugger’ about family and kids that stars a guy that usually helps usher in the big popcorn flicks as Marvel Studios’ patriotic powerhouse. Like many “swinging” singles from TV (“Family Affair”) and cinema (RAISING HELEN), he’s tackling unexpected parenthood after the tragic demise of the birth mother. And things get even more complicated, when (as in other recent films like LITTLE MAN TATE) the child is a genius, brainy, or as the title proclaims, GIFTED.
Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is living a pretty good life in the southern “sunshine state” of Florida. He keeps busy bringing in the bread by repairing boats at the local dock. This skill certainly comes in handy, since this hunky bachelor is raising his late sister’s only child Mary (Mckenna Grace), They live in a modest cottage complex next door to their landlord, and weekend babysitter, Roberta (Octavia Spenser). But things are a-changin’, now that Mary is seven. Frank has been home-schooling her, and can barely keep up with her astounding aptitude for mathematics. But now that she’s seven, Frank thinks Mary should attend public school in order to hone her social skills. As her stunned first grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) discovers, Mary is intellectually miles ahead of her classmate. And Mary is boooored. After a school bus dust-up, Frank is called into the principal’s office for a confab. Ms. Davis (Elizabeth Marvel) tells him that she can get Mary into an exclusive school for gifted children on a full scholarship. But Frank insists that Mary needs to stay put. That night Bonnie tracks him down to their local watering hole, to lend a sympathetic ear. One drink leads to another, and…the two share a secret romance. But Frank’s joy is short-lived by the arrival of his estranged mother the wealthy Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s enraged that Mary is in public school and, since Mary’s father left the picture before she was born, insists that the child return with her to Boston for a “proper education”. The squabble leads to a court battle, but can “average Joe” Frank possibly prevail against his mom’s hired legal “guns”? And what about Mary and her future?
With his strong lead performance, Evans confirms that he’ll have a long career after his passes on his “mighty shield” (just don’t let it go too soon, okay?). He makes Frank an affable, easy-going everyman, but one that’s focused. This is particularly true when he goes to see the principal, knowing when to call her bluff. He’s strong in his beliefs about what’s best for Mary, and will defend his decisions without backing down. But Evans shows us his inner conflict, as he wonders whether he is doing right by her. And he conveys Frank’s sadness, over the loss of his sis, then the possibility of losing her child, knowing that his heart is being chipped away to nothing. Best of all, Evans is a great partner for the remarkable Grace, at once achingly adorable just before frustrating us with her stubbornness (maybe she gets it from her uncle and grandma’). As Mary she projects intelligence with a sense of longing, wanting to connect with kids her age, but unable to fit in. And just try not to tear up as she bounces from despair to rage when forced to do “what’s best”. The last part of the family triangle is the terrific Duncan, taking a character that could’ve been a one-dimensional villain and adding real depth. In her first appearance Evelyn seems “snooty” and aloof until we see that she believes that Mary is a second chance, a way to correct what went wrong with her own daughter. And like Frank, she’s a fierce fighter, best illustrated when she is cross-examined (that “mama bear” will not suffer fools). Slate is warm and nurturing as the sympathetic teacher, but she’s given little to do after her awkward “walk of shame”, relegated to being a supportive witness to the legal battles. The same can be said of Spencer, who must be another cheerleader for Franks and Mary, a clichéd soulful “earth mother” who dispenses home-spun wisdom spiced with lots of “sass”.
Director Marc Webb bounces back from the flawed Amazing Spider-Man flicks, to guide a film that’s got a little something for everyone: comedy, drama, romance, and legal thriller. The pace never sags, since he knows when to dwell on a moment for impact and when to move on before things get way too sentimental. Tom Flynn’s screenplay borrows more than a bit from TATE and KRAMER VS. KRAMER (with some of LOSING ISAIAH and GOOD WILL HUNTING tossed in for good measure), but his story takes a couple of unforseen turns that keep viewers on their toes. Although some of the courtroom scenes are compelling, the real heart of the story is Frank and Mary. Their exchanges ring true and avoid being maudlin, although one scene of them having a spiritual talk silhouetted against the setting sun felt like a bit from the old “Courtship of Eddie’s Father” sitcom. The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh captures the hazy look of humid Florida, while the score from Rob Simonsen never overpowers and knows when to back away. In other hands the film could have come off as a bigger budgeted “made for basic cable TV” movie of the week, in heavy rotation on Lifetime, but Webb’s confident direction and the easy rapport between Evans and Grace make GIFTED a sweet, not syrupy look at the highs and lows of parenting.
3.5 Out of 5