How does one allow a prodigy to develop her talents, while giving her space to be a kid? How does a surrogate parent cope with the death of the birth mother?
These are deep questions, worthy of probing. Writer Andrew Solomon showed us how this could be done with profundity and elegance in his masterly volume Far from the Tree. Lamentably, director Marc Webb only skims the surface of these waters in his latest and generally unsatisfying film, Gifted.
Too bad, because Webb had decent actors to work with in the lead roles of uncle and niece Frank and Mary Adler. Chris Evans may be best known for playing Captain America in the current spate of Marvel Comics movies, vying neck and neck with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor for the title of blandest Avenger. But even his small part in the exuberant Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as Evil Ex-boyfriend #2, displayed his capacity for zip and zing on the big screen. Likewise, McKenna Grace – astonishingly prolific in cinema and TV for a 10 year old – both charms and convinces with her range of emotion as math genius Mary.
Having raised Mary since infancy, Frank and his niece reside in a tiny rented house on Florida’s gulf coast, where Frank freelances as a boat repairman. The movie opens with Mary glumly heading off for her first day of school, as she’d previously enjoyed being homeschooled by Frank.
Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) quickly recognizes her student’s brilliance and suggests that Frank help Mary embark on a far more advanced level of schooling. Frank refuses, out of concern that such a course would necessarily bar Mary from having a normal childhood. It quickly emerges that Frank’s fear stems from family tragedy, as Mary’s mother had been pressed to overachieve and suicided when Mary was an infant.
Enter the erstwhile source of that pressure. Evelyn – Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother – manifestly failed to learn from her daughter’s misery. Long absent from her son’s life and never present for her granddaughter till now, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) files for sole custody of Mary, so Mary’s genius can be nurtured as she deems proper.
That’s how Marc Webb sets up his conflict of personalities and ideas. Frank’s childrearing style is shown through the simplicity of his life: the enjoyment of a day on the water with his niece, Mary and Frank’s easygoing friendship with their landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer), their casual discussion about the existence or nonexistence of God.
Frank prioritizes goodness over genius, encouraging Mary to stand up for the bullied and to resist the temptation to condescend. By contrast, wealthy Evelyn has a battalion of tutors, professors, and textbooks at the ready.
Your surmises over this story’s resolution are probably about 80% accurate. There are a couple of surprises along the way, but by and large Gifted follows a plot-by-numbers handbook. This shows itself clearly in the underutilization of the supporting characters, with Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer given little more to do than sympathetically emote in the background.
In addition, the tragedy of the suicide of Mary’s mother is a frequent touchstone, but is never given the emotional weight it deserves. With few exceptions, Gifted disappoints with an affective shallowness that matches its intellectual superficiality.
This is especially sad when one considers the heft and pop of Marc Webb’s feature debut, (500) Days of Summer. This romantic comedy completely dodged the predictability of its genre, with believable lead actors and fleshed-out supporting characters. In relatably smart fashion, it also portrayed the rise and fall of romantic infatuation, as well as considering the effects that parental divorce can have on the offsprings’ willingness to commit.
Even the musical choices in (500) Days of Summer – The Smiths, Regina Spektor, Hall & Oates – synchronized perfectly with the onscreen emotions. Gifted teases with the use of a pleasing Cat Stevens tune early on, but then settles into forgettable musical accompaniment.
Perhaps Webb’s direction of two Spider-Man movies (the ones with Andrew Garfield) locked him too tightly into the Hollywood blockbuster machine. And his debut definitely benefitted from having a pair of screenplay writers who went on to pen above-average works like The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars. Regardless of the causes for the dip in quality, here’s hoping that Webb can break free and find his cinematic muse again.
2.5 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: Gifted is rated PG-13. In light of the thematic elements I described above, this sounds about right to me.)