Gifted feels like it’s supposed to be Oscar bait. It’s got big-name stars and other acclaimed actors in a small, emotionally manipulative story. But somehow, they screwed up and made a really good movie instead.
Seven-year-old Mary Adler (played by McKenna Grace) is a mathematical genius. When most kids her age are learning to add single-digit numbers, she’s doing advanced calculus. Her mother Diane was also brilliant. She’d been expected to solve one of the math world’s unsolvable “millennium” problems, but instead committed suicide, leaving behind a baby girl. Mary went to live with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans), who’s no dummy himself, but earns a meager living doing freelance boat repair in south Florida.
Frank loves Mary very much (and vice versa) and wants what’s best for her, but his idea of what’s best doesn’t exactly align with what a lot of other people think. He does what he can to fuel her thirst for mathematical knowledge, but wants her to be well rounded. He can’t give her that through home schooling, and he doesn’t think she’d get it at an academy for gifted students, so he sends her off to be a first grader in a public school. His landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who loves Mary like one of her own, warns him that this is a dangerous move, and she was right. Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) soon recognizes her genius and inadvertently sets off a string of events that leads to a custody battle in which Frank’s wealthy, estranged, status-seeking mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) wants to put Mary in an intensive educational regime so that she can become what Diane never did.
It’s a very simple story that unfolds pretty much how you expect it to. The only really surprising thing about the movie is how good it is. I expected great acting, especially from Octavia Spencer (who is every bit as good as you hope she’d be) and Chris Evans (whose performance makes me wish he’d do a lot more Snowpiercer and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and a lot less Captain America and Fantastic Four), but McKenna Grace really deserves the credit for pulling off the perfect balance of brilliant, socially awkward, and seven years old. It’s what really elevates the film beyond just another indie.
If I have any real complaints, it’s that the role of Evelyn seems too one-dimensional. I think the fault is more in the way the character was written (almost cartoonish in its cold-heartedness and single-mindedness) than in Duncan’s portrayal, and I think think that making her more human would’ve improved the emotional balance of the film. We should have been able to sympathize with her a lot more than we do, but it really doesn’t get in the way too much, and all the other positive aspects of the movie make it easier to overlook.