‘Gifted’ is Remedial (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=4.00]

Gifted is the kind of movie your mother will love. Filled with saccharine sweet sentiment, it’s an unobtrusive monument to mediocrity—one which does everything right and stays precisely in its lane, and nothing more. Your mother (or, if not her, then her mother) will be moved by the surface level charms of the film that feel purposefully designed to appeal to an uncritical audience. A crowd-pleaser, for sure, provided of course that the crowd in question never bothers to put too much thought into the enterprise.

Add a smidge of thought, sadly, and the foundational cracks begin to appear. Once that’s in the mix, Gifted becomes, at best, better than average pap propelled by strong performances that does its job without being memorable. At worst, Gifted is a fundamentally flawed work of Lifetime emotionalism saved from the purgatory of the made for TV wasteland by its inexplicable star power. But your mother will say that it’s “Cute” or, perhaps, “Sweet,” with a smile on her face and tears in her eye.

You won’t be able to discuss the contrivances of plot or the nonsensical resolutions. You’ll feel awful discussing how entire characters—and by extension, the amazing actors and actresses who portray them—are wasted and go nowhere. No, this is a movie that has carefully insulated itself from basic standards of criticism by pouring out feelings, rendering itself impervious from the nitpicking critiques of uncaring assholes. Anyone who doesn’t love this movie must be emotionally dead. Your mom will probably feel sorry for me.

It’s almost easy to get swept away by the plot of Gifted, which is surprisingly elevated due to its performances. The film appeals to our basic sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, because of course who wants to see a custodial guardian (Chris Evans) lose the child he’s raised for the last six years (Mckenna Grace) following his sister’s suicide. That would be cruel, not just to uncle and niece, but to the audience. The very prospect of such an injustice inflames our collective outrage, forcing us to hope and cheer as the duo fights the cold and distant grandmother (Lindsey Duncan) in a court of law.

At issue is the young girl’s obvious genius. At age 10, having never stepped foot inside a school in her life thanks to the homeschooling of her loving uncle, she’s already solving differential equations and working complex problems of calculus. This puts her at serious odds with the other first graders once she finally does start to attend school, and her uncle’s unwillingness to let the school transfer her to a school for gifted children is baffling to the heartless administrators of her new elementary, who kick off the custody battle by contacting the long absent grandmother.

There are a lot of questions this brings up. First, and obviously, schools are required to adhere to strict rules of disclosure for their students. As custodial guardian, Evans would have provided a list of contacts with whom he would allow the school to discuss his niece. That he and his mother haven’t spoken in near a decade suggests that she would’ve never been on that list. Frankly speaking, he could’ve bankrupted the district in a lawsuit. Of course, his claim to guardianship itself is somewhat nebulous. Throughout the movie, he insists that it’s what his sister would’ve wanted, but never are we given any proof of this, which creates its own set of problems.

We’re meant to side with him, obviously, if for no other reason than grandmother offends our sensibilities as regular people. She’s a gilded elite, with a strong bent towards the rigors of academia. Those same rigors which, incidentally, eventually pushed the young girl’s mother to suicide. The fact that he willingly turned his back on a college professorship in order to occasionally fix boats in Florida is meant to instill a sense of communion between the audience and the character—he’s normal, while grandmother is strange and bizarre.

The script for Gifted relies heavily on emotional shorthand, forcing us to love its characters without ever putting the work in to earn it. Uncle Frank is regular and loves his niece; young Mary is precocious and adorable, so naturally we love her. Frank’s neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) loves Frank and Mary, and it’s good to have allies. Mary’s teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), who first noticed Mary’s gift and disagrees with the administrative decision to get the wicked grandmother involved, cheers from the sidelines.

Everyone playing the roles does so to the best of their abilities. Evans and Grace have a natural chemistry which makes for a solid familial dynamic, even if that isn’t ever earned by the script. The young actress holds her own against Captain America, and seems poised to become the next big child star in the American Pantheon. Spencer proves that she’s an actress who can make anything work, even if her role is limited and pointless. That we love Roberta is a testament to her power as an Academy Award winning actress. Even Slate, whose role consists mainly of vague love interest who happens to send a fortuitous text when things look their most dour, puts in work and breathes life into a role that could have very easily been written out completely.

With a better script Gifted might’ve been a magical moviegoing experience that touched hearts and minds for years after its release. As is, it’s a hollow mansion built on a haphazard foundation that assures a total collapse. The cast can bear the weight up to a point, after which the cracks begin to show. The end result is a film that, while pleasing enough as a surface level endeavor, crumbles upon close inspection. It’s shallow nonsense masquerading as nuanced exploration, tugging your emotions without ever earning that right. That will probably be good enough for you mom, with her bookshelf full of Nicholas Sparks books and knickknacks, and I’m thrilled she’ll find her new favorite movie, but the rest of us can feel free to pass this by.

Gifted is now playing in limited released. It opens everywhere on April 12.

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