Every moment of Gifted is carefully designed to make you feel a certain way. It’s schmaltzy, emotionally manipulative, basic, and nowhere even remotely close to original. It’s so broad in its drama that each and every machination of this brand of storytelling — every music cue, every twinkling tear, every silhouette against a sunset — becomes glaringly obvious. You’ve seen this movie a million times before and you’ll see it a million times again. You can almost sense the director pressing a big, red button labeled “feel” right at the moment when we’re all supposed to cry, and honestly, that’s pretty much what’s he’s doing.
What I’m saying is that I didn’t need to be a cinephile to realize I was being played by Gifted. But I’m also saying that I loved every damn minute of it.
So it goes, this kind of crap just works on me. It really, really does. Something about scruffy parental figures fighting for custody of an adorable kid from a stuffy, authoritarian tickles my family glands (not to be confused with my FAMBLY glands, which are tickled only by Fast & Furious movies). And if you throw an adorable animal into the mix — in this case, a one-eyed cat named Fred — well, the battle is won, moviemakers. Pass those tissues, I’m down for the count.
That cat has one eye. So cute.
BUT NOT AS CUTE AS WATCHING A BEARDED, SLIGHTLY DAMAGED CHRIS EVANS DO HIS BEST TO RAISE A CHILD GENIUS.
Gifted tells the story of Mary, a 6 year-old with a gift (!) for mathematics. She’s beyond MENSA-level brilliant, but her uncle Frank (Evans), who was put into guardianship after his equally brilliant sister committed suicide, wants only for Mary to have a normal life. He’s of the opinion that she should remain in public school. “Separate leaders from regular people like us,” he reasons to Mary’s teachers, “and you get congressmen.” Unfortunately for him, Mary’s distant grandmother sees this as a squandering of her gift, and seeks to obtain legal custody of the child, so she can force her into advanced academia.
The clash of ideals is what drives the film forward, never getting too caught up in any one moment. There are detours into a typical romance between Frank and and one of Mary’s teachers, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), as well as a side story involving Mary’s friendship with the lonely landlord (Octavia Spencer, bringing joy to a thankless role), but none of it amounts to anything with much weight. Short of a 20-minute span of hard drama, Gifted remains breezy and adorable for the bulk of its runtime. And even though it probably could have been more densely packed, I found myself in appreciation of its lightness. It’s what we call a feel-good movie, and lately it feels like a lot of people have forgotten how to do just that: feel good. So yeah, it was nice.
If this is Chris Evans trying to loosen his ties to Captain America, it’s a good start. It’s easy to forget that the reason he’s so good as Cap is not just his charisma, but that he’s also a versatile actor. He can do empathy, comedy, and intensity with equal aplomb, all three of which are on display in Gifted. And of course his lovely performance would be nothing without an equally lovely turn from McKenna Grace as Mary. There are shades of early Dakota Fanning in her work, and not in just an “adorable youngster” sort of way. No, she’s clearly one of those rare child performers who somehow really gets the material. I’m always so amazed when I see a child who is able to process acting in a way that isn’t simple parroting.
If this is Marc Webb trying to loosen his ties to The Amazing Spider-Man, it’s also a good start. How he made the jump from 500 Days of Summer to Spidey I will never know (probably the name), but it’s good to see him back in fluff territory. Maybe a little less handheld camera work during stationary scenes (the wobbles are distracting), but overall it’s clear he is much more in his element doing this sort of thing.
That cat though. Mmmph.
Gifted opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.