The concept of the new film from director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) seems deceptively simple but as Tom Flynn’s deft screenplay (plucked from the 2014 blacklist) scratches the surface, things get complicated and often painful. When we meet Frank Adler (Chris Evans) and his seven-year-old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), they live in a small coastal Florida trailer park, where she goes to public school, even though it’s immediately clear that her math skills make her way too smart for any primary school classroom. Her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) brings this fact to Frank’s attention, and he insists that Mary is exactly where she needs to be, for the purposes of giving her something resembling the life of a normal child.
Gifted begins to open up as a dramatic force when Frank’s mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) arrives, after a long search for her granddaughter, whom she threatens to take away from Frank if he doesn’t send her to a nearby school that will help Mary develop her already formidable mathematical skills. It soon becomes clear that the root of this battle over Mary’s future stems from her absent mother, who was a math genius who committed suicide right after asking Frank to take care of his daughter. It turns out the entire family is quite strong in the field of mathematics, and as a result, it tore them apart because Evelyn pushed her children too hard, too early and kept them from having the lives and friendships that most kids get to have. Frank and Evelyn are effectively fighting for Mary’s future and her soul.
Frank is intent on surrounding Mary with loving, caring people, like Bonnie and their neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who will expand her world beyond numbers. Her uncle spots the early stages of Mary becoming arrogant around other, less gifted children, and it pains him as he struggles to help her learn patience. There’s a court case where all the ugly family secrets come out, but before that point, we’re already fully invested in this family nightmare. Director Webb makes us care so deeply about Mary’s fate and future that it’s sometimes painful to watch as she and Frank are forced apart briefly. The idea of wedging in a potential romance between Frank and Bonnie seems perhaps ill-advised and superfluous, but Slate is so darn likable that I genuinely didn’t mind.
Gifted may seen like a whole lot of first-world problems in one neat little package (“Oh no, she’s too smart for her own good!”), but I’m sure there are children like this everywhere who struggle to find a balance between being talented and being young. Duncan is especially good here, attempting to give her granddaughter everything she couldn’t give her daughter. But the more gifted Mary reveals herself to be, the more Evelyn pushes more than she should. There is a trail of hurt feelings by the end of Gifted, all just to get to the point where everyone realizes that the best course of action should be left to the girl with all the gifts in the first place. For a film I thought I had little interest in, this has been the work that had lingered with me the longest after seeing it.