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Non-Review Review: Gifted

Gifted is a sweet little movie, occasionally a little too sweet.

Gifted is essentially a wry family drama, the tale of a custody battle over a gifted young child that plays into larger questions about the responsibilities of parenthood and the expectations heaped upon greatness. Young Mary Adler is undoubtedly a mathematical genius. At the age of six, she is rattling off advanced multiplication and square roots, much to the amazement of the adults around her. Her uncle Frank and her grandmother Evelyn find themselves at odds with how best to raise Mary.

Head and shoulders above the other kids…

Gifted is an ambiguous meditation on the obligations that parents have to their children, to the challenges in determining what is best for their offspring. How does a parent respond to a child who is preternaturally intelligent? Is it right to push a person to be all that they can be? Is it healthier to teach them to accept themselves? It is an intriguing debate. At its most earnest, Gifted plays out like Whiplash by proxy and with numbers. There are time at which Gifted seems a little clumsy, a little awkward in its grand emotional gestures or core themes.

However reductive that summary might seem, Gifted is elevated by the combination of a witty script and a charming cast. In particular, Gifted is anchored in the central dynamic between Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace, who bring a vulnerability and warmth to the relationship between unlikely caregiver and talented youth.

Keep on trucking.

The conflict at the heart of Gifted is familiar. The movie is essentially anchored in the frequent refrain that intelligence can exist as a barrier to happiness and fulfillment. That popular notion is reinforced through narratives that tie intelligence together with mental illness, often suggesting that true genius is tantamount to insanity. Although there may be some evidence to back it up, it remains a controversial generalisation. More than that, it can be handled rather clumsily in popular culture; films like A Beautiful Mind come to mind.

Gifted flirts with this idea, without committing. There are shades of this familiar cliché to be found in Mary’s family history. She never knew her mother, who turned out to be a mathematical genius. However, Gifted is very careful to avoid explicitly stating that Diana Adler suffered from the kinds of mental illnesses that populate narratives like this, or that her depression was an inevitable side effect of genius. Instead, Gifted argues that Diane’s fragile mental state was a result of nurture, of the way in which society – and particularly her mother – treated her intelligence.

Does not compute.

The central tension in Gifted has rooted in this question of how best to raise a child with these abilities, whether the correct thing to do with this talent is to teach a child to hone it and focus it at any cost. In some ways, Frank seems particularly suited to this dilemma. At one stage, he admits to having worked as an “associate professor” of philosophy, and the debate in Gifted is couched in abstracts. Does Mary owe her gift to the world? Is her grandmother Evelyn seeking to cynically exploit her, or does she have a moral obligation to share her talents?

These were the sorts of questions that powered Whiplash, the question of the obligations that a person owed to their talents and the sacrifices that they were expected to make to fulfill those ambitions. There are moments in which Gifted threatens to transform into a much bolder and more vicious take on that idea, one invested in questions of agency and determinism. However, Gifted is far too gentle to really push the point. Whenever it seems like the movie might say something that seems too bold or too provocative, it pulls back.

We kid you not.

Gifted largely avoids these hefty questions. The conflict at the heart of Gifted might be framed in abstract terms, but the movie is careful to make sure that the drama remains focused on the characters. Frank and Evelyn might gesture towards some philosophical debate about the moral burden of genius, but Gifted always returns its attention to the psychodrama involving these characters. Evelyn might occasionally score a rhetorical point, but her character motivations are always positioned in explicitly selfish terms.

This is not a big problem, although there are points at which Gifted leans a little bit too heavily into its sweetness. At one point, for example, Frank decides to defuse a tense family situation by dragging Mary out into the world to witness a random (and unscheduled) expression of beauty in the world. It is an incredibly heavy-handed sequence, one that doesn’t so much push the “life is beautiful button” as hammer it into the dashboard. This sugar-coated cake comes with buttercream icing. “Can we stay for another one?” Mary asks.

Hand-holding.

Still, Gifted mostly keeps on an even keel, striking an effective balance between overly-sincere cheesiness and genuine emotional connection. Tom Flynn’s screenplay has an endearing sense of humour that tends to pull the movie back from the edge in these moments. Its characters banter effectively, acknowledging the key emotion beats of their relationships while cleverly deflecting the more earnest tangents. The emotional dynamics of Mary, Frank and Evelyn might be fairly rote, but they engage with one another like real people; putdowns, bad jokes, simmering resentment.

Gifted is elevated by a superb cast, including Lindsay Duncan and Jenny Slate. However, the movie belongs to Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace. The two play off one another very well, bouncing dialogue effectively between them. Grace is engagingly precocious as the six-year-old prodigy, convincingly conveying intelligence and immaturity in the same breath. It is an impressive performance, and Gifted rewards Grace by trusting her to carry the film almost as much as her top-billed co-star, following her into school and allowing her an inner life.

Frank parenting.

However, Evans remains the most valuable player. The performer brings an incredibly vulnerability to Frank, a sense of emotional depth and profound sadness lurking just behind his practiced smile and his quick wit. Evans pitches his performance very carefully and effectively. There is something stoic to Frank, the rehearsed ease of somebody who has tried to convince himself that he is comfortable in a life that is not what he expected. Evans breaks the audience’s heart by degrees, and never through brute force. It is measured and impressive work.

Family business.

Indeed, Marc Webb’s direction is similarly measured. Webb is a director perhaps best known for his stylistic sensibilities. He rose to prominence with his direction of (500) Days of Summer before helming the Amazing Spider-Man films. More recently, Webb was responsible for establishing the visual template for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. With that in mind, Gifted seems almost restrained and understated. Webb finds beauty in this simplicity. The film’s most striking and affecting shots are of familial joy; Frank sitting Mary on his shoulders, against a sunset.

Gifted is a charming little film, an engaging piece of work. It is a very small film, but more effective for that smallness. It works best in those smaller beats, in those tiny moments.

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