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Sentimental intellectual - ‘Gifted’

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Strong performances highlight family drama

Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for a story about a child prodigy. It doesn’t matter what kind of prodigy – math, music, chess, sports, whatever. I’m in. Movies like “Little Man Tate” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer” have always been personal favorites.

“Gifted” introduces us to yet another of these hyper-gifted kids – a 7-year-old math prodigy being raised by an uncle who has reason to question whether or not she should be pushed to focus exclusively on those particular gifts at the expense of a more normal childhood.

Mary (McKenna Grace, TV’s “Designated Survivor”) lives with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans, “Captain America: Civil War”) in a small town in Florida. Frank has been raising Mary for years – ever since the girl’s mother (Frank’s sister and a brilliant mathematician) took her own life.

Frank has been homeschooling Mary to this point, but he recognizes that their unconventional situation has led to some gaps in Mary’s life. He decides to send the girl to public school to let her spend some time as a normal kid.

However, Mary’s gifts are immediately obvious to her teacher Bonnie (Jennie Slate, TV’s “Bob’s Burgers”). And when word gets out, it gets all the way to Mary’s grandmother – Frank’s mother – Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”). Evelyn comes to Florida to demand that Mary’s education be accelerated to match her gifts – and Frank refuses.

A custody battle ensues. Evelyn considers Mary’s potential to be too enormous to possibly squander; she wants to put Mary through the same education process as her gifted mother. Frank believes that his sister would never want Mary to have to go through any of that, that all she wanted was for Mary to have a normal childhood.

Through it all, the bond between Frank and Mary deepens as she starts to learn not only about her potential, but about her past and about her mother. And Frank’s understanding of just how much Mary means to him – and what it would mean to his sister’s memory to allow her daughter to wind up traveling the same sad path that she did.

If that description makes “Gifted” sound a bit predictable, well … you’re not wrong. There aren’t a lot of surprises here. Screenwriter Tom Flynn (whose script for “Gifted” gained attention as part of the 2014 Black List) keeps things pretty straightforward, checking most of the boxes you expect for this kind of sentiment-driven drama without ever really stepping outside of them. Ditto director Marc Webb, whose last feature was the last “Spider-Man” movie back in 2014; one could argue that Webb retreated too far from the bombast of that effort and went too stylistically small.

However, the film is elevated from adequate to above-average thanks to the efforts of its cast. Allowing a child’s performance to serve as your narrative’s foundation is risky; finding kids who can handle the heavy lifting isn’t easy. But Grace is actually quite good as Mary, finding ways to render the character’s soulful and smart-ass qualities with equal strength. It’s one of the better performances by a child actor that I’ve seen in some time.

Evans is good as Frank; “rough-and-tumble and immature former academic” seems like an ideal palate-cleansing interlude between Marvel movies. It’s not a particularly trying role for him, but he’s suitably engaged. His inherent affability is exponentially enhanced by the dynamic between him and Grace – their scenes are incredibly sweet while mostly managing to avoid becoming cloying.

Duncan is good in a thankless part Despite the odd variability in terms of Evelyn’s personality and motivations, she’s able to keep the character grounded in the world of the film. The script doesn’t do her any favors, but Duncan manages to mostly make it work. Slate gives a performance that somehow feels both genuine and affected; she almost feels as though she’s working in a slightly different film than the rest of the cast. It’s not bad, just a bit off. Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”) features prominently as Frank and Mary’s neighbor Roberta and she’s low-key excellent throughout, bringing a charm with a couple of hidden sharp edges.

“Gifted” isn’t a great movie, with its semi-formulaic plotting and gradual slide into sentimentality. It largely eschews the gray areas that can give a straightforward story like this a little bit of nuance. But the quality of the performances – particularly that of the young star – infuses the film with at least some of the necessary drama.

It might not be as smart as its hero, but “Gifted” is smart enough.

[4 out of 5]


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