Movie Review: ‘Gifted’
Marc Webb exchanges his Spider-man directing skills for a family court drama in his latest film Gifted. It’s a simple yet engaging story that feels like a combination of Danny DeVito’s Matilda and last year’s Manchester By the Sea. Centered on a single man in a custody battle over his math prodigy niece, Gifted is an earnest yet predictable story. Even with a lazy script, the charismatic cast and whimsical tone help carry the movie to respectable heights.
Relative newcomer McKeena Grace plays a spunky child prodigy named Mary. She lives under custody of her Uncle Frank, played by an amiable Chris Evans. Mary can solve complex math equation,s but her talents are discreetly hidden by Frank. He fights to provide Mary a normal childhood as requested by his troubled and now deceased sister. Mary’s gifts are discovered at her newly attended public school by her teacher Bonnie, played by Jenny Slate. Frank’s attempts at providing her a normal life comes to a screeching halt when his estranged authoritarian mother (Lindsay Duncan) begins a brutal custody battle.
Gifted uses all the old custody battle tropes and can come off a bit recycled and stale. Tom Flynn’s script is a by the numbers retelling of every popular family court drama. From Kramer vs. Kramer to I am Sam, we have seen this story and the script doesn’t attempt to hide it. You even get the classic “you need to be a big kid now” weepy speech. And when it’s not overused the story can get a little messy with mini plot points. It’s a good attempt to get as many dimensions to the characters as possible but it all can fill slightly bloated. Sometimes it looks like it’s going to be more of a love story, then it feels like it’s going to tell Mary’s struggle as an outsider, only to finally find its place in the court room. It’s not sophisticated storytelling but it’s genuine and you root for the characters even when they are the most unlikeable. This sentimental heart tugging drama is so pleasant that you may be kicking yourself for going on the ride. How can you not like a one-eyed car named Fred?
Gifted is schmaltzy and unoriginal but the storytelling is sincere. It grows on you and if anything, it’s engaging. Chris Evans always seems to be on the verge of doing some of his best work, but he hasn’t yet gotten his really juicy role yet. He is charming, likeable, and a very good leading man but he deserves better material. Jenny Slate continues to grow her career as a breakout star. She has the spirited attitude and unique raspy voice that makes her standout. She is reminiscent of Julie Kavner in Rhoda (get her in a Woody Allen movie ASAP). But of course, the breakout star is McKeena Grace as Mary. You may think that she was created in Dakota Fanning factory. Her performance is eerily similar to many of Fanning’s work as a child star.
Gifted works for a general audience not expecting more than getting a punch in the feels. It’s an emotionally manipulative movie that will either have you rolling your eyes or have tears coming out. It’s pure sap and it’s not shy about it. But it’s well done sap. The movie is handled with the best intentions and care. It would be easy to throw this thing together and show it on the Lifetime channel but there is genuine movie at play. If you’re cup of tea involves the show This is Us or The Notebook, enjoy the utter joy of over sentimentality.
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