Smart People. Smart Movie?
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Jenny Slate
Released April 13th, 2017
Director Marc Webb reached great heights in 2009 with his wonderful debut, 500 Days of Summer, before being sucked into the Hollywood Blockbuster Machine and churning out two disappointing Amazing Spider-Man movies in 2012 and 2014. Now free of that franchise, he turns his attention to a smaller story about great expectations.
Mary (Mckenna Grace) is a seven-year-old math prodigy being raised by her Uncle Frank (Chris Evans). Fun and flawless, Frank is the greatest surrogate dad of all time. He’s been loosely homeschooling Mary and working on boats to pay the bills since moving down from Boston to Central Florida a few years ago. They’ve got a well-fed, one-eyed cat named Fred. Some Friday nights Frank drinks at a local bar, but he always makes sure Mckenna spends those nights with his landlord/pal Roberta (Octavia Spencer), whom Mary adores.
Frank wants more than anything for his niece to have a “normal childhood”, so he enrolls her in first grade at the local public school. On her first day, Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) discovers Mary is able to multiply huge sums in her head. She calls a meeting with Frank and the school principal, who offers Mary a full scholarship to a school for gifted youngsters.
To the shocked faces of Mary’s principal and teacher, Frank walks out declining the offer, saying he only wants Mary to be a “normal kid.” Frank blames his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) for his sister’s death, believing Evelyn worked his sister too hard on maths at the expense of everything else. When Evelyn comes down to the Sunshine State in an attempt to take custody of Mary, Frank worries history will repeat.
So goes the silly anti-intellectual streak of Gifted, a movie that tells us smart kids shouldn’t challenge themselves, a movie that tells us you can’t have a fun, happy childhood if you pursue mathematical gifts you may posses. It’s a dangerous point of view for such a saccharine sweet movie to portend.
I wish Chris Evans’ character would have had at least one flaw. Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer’s characters don’t serve much purpose in the film. Lindsay Duncan sneers her way through the movie admirably, while Mckenna Grace gives Gifted‘s best performance. Mathematical lingo can be challenging to master, yet it never feels like she’s saying words she doesn’t understand.
Most movies about child prodigies focus on the caretaker’s struggle to do what is best for their special young person. Gifted is no different in that the movie is more concerned with how Frank feels about what he’s doing for his niece than maybe what is actually in her best interest.
The film doesn’t give you any room to disagree with Frank: of course he’s doing the right thing turning down a scholarship for Mary, of course he’s doing the right thing discouraging her Grandmother’s participation in her life. If my child understood advanced calculus at a young age, you better believe I’d sign him up for gifted classes. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t encourage him to play on playgrounds and be a silly goofball kid. The two paths are not mutually exclusive, as Gifted would like us to believe.