Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Glenn Plummer, Pat Golding, Keir O'Donnell
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 4/7/17 (limited); 4/12/17 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 6, 2017
Tom Flynn's screenplay for Gifted is continually at odds between a character-based drama and crowd-pleasing melodrama. In its quieter moments, the movie shows what it could have been.
The movie also works in some its more overtly dramatic moments, and there are plenty of them. The story focuses around a court proceeding for the custody of a 6-year-old math prodigy. On one side is Frank (Chris Evans), the girl's uncle, who took the girl across state lines when she was a baby after her mother—another math genius—committed suicide. On the other side is Frank's mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who was also proficient in mathematics until she had to give up her work to raise her children.
In between the two is Mary (Mckenna Grace, playing just the right level of precocious), the girl who's following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, even though she never knew either of them. The most important question, of course, is which living situation is in the best interest of the child: an uncle who can barely support the girl financially and, while supporting her interest in math, wants her to be a normal kid or the previously absentee grandmother who could give the girl everything she wants but might push her into an extreme level of dedication to her studies.
This is a solid setup for drama. In fact, it's enough of a setup for this particular story, but such dilemmas are tricky and, because of the past between the conflicting sides of the custody battle, irreconcilable. It's not, in other words, a particularly cheerful premise, because everyone is going to walk away unhappy no matter what the result of the case may be.
To sidestep this apparent problem, Flynn turns Frank into the noblest of working-class intentions. He's a decent guy with a good heart—the kind of man who, in one of the movie's more ridiculously sappy scenes, runs into an animal shelter to save one cat from euthanasia and ends up leaving the place with three of the furry animals. Meanwhile, the screenwriter turns Evelyn into a cold-hearted, manipulative, resentful, and nearly vengeful woman. She wants what's best for Mary, but only if it's what she wants for the girl.
Based on these factors, it's an easy choice for us. The only thing that might make us doubt the rightness of Frank serving as Mary's guardian is when Frank himself openly wonders if he should be. Of course, this is just another way of displaying the character's nobility—his self-doubt serving as an expression of him genuinely wanting what's best for Mary. Evelyn has no such doubts.
What works in this setup is how Flynn and director Marc Webb treat the courtroom scenes. These types of scenes are usually excuses for major revelations and extreme expressions of emotion, but for the most part, such flourishes are kept to a minimum.
Note the way that Flynn's screenplay handles the only appearance of Mary's biological father (played by Keir O'Donnell), who appears in court on Evelyn's side. Such a scene would become a major point of conflict for the rest of the story, but instead, it's dismissed as quickly as Frank's lawyer (played by Glenn Plummer) shows that the father has had no interest in his daughter until now. The court scenes are played with a matter-of-factness that, on one hand, means there's no tension but that, on another, show that Flynn has his mind more on the characters than on easy conflict.
That scene leads to the movie's most affecting, in which Frank takes Mary, distraught that her father wants nothing to do with her, to the waiting room of a local maternity ward. There's real feeling behind scenes like this one, which say a lot (in this case, about what constitutes a real family) without much being said by the characters. Another comes late in the movie, when Evelyn is confronted with the truth about her deceased daughter. Webb focuses the attention in this moment on the tear stains that have warped the text and calculations on pages of notes.
These moments are enough, but Flynn, seemingly under the impression that drama requires "more," introduces entire subplots that and characters who exist here solely to fit those requirements. They could be done away with, and the movie wouldn't be losing much. There's Frank and Mary's neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who watches Mary one night a week so that Frank can go to the bar. That's the extent of her role—to be supportive of Frank's cause and, later, to lug around a box of documents so that Frank can have a dramatic confrontation with his mother.
One also has to question the necessity of the character of Mary's teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate). She begins the movie as someone who could help Mary achieve, even in an environment that the girl is far beyond on an intellectual level. Almost inevitably, Bonnie becomes a romantic partner for Frank. It's obvious that the entanglement is a distraction for Flynn's goals, because the character all but disappears after that.
There's a simpler story at the heart of Gifted, and when the movie focuses on that tale, it's effective (even with the loaded conflict between uncle and grandmother). There's too much "more" here, though, and it's all a distraction.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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