It’s a little known fact that when a heatwave hits the UK, one of the best places to go for sanctuary, one of the few places that actually has air conditioning, is a multiplex cinema. Willing to do anything to fend off the 33 degree heat of central Oxford, in I went to see Gifted, a film whose trailer didn’t do much to entice me but also a film with a solid cast that I hoped would cool me down and prove me wrong.
Gifted tells the story of Frank Adler (Chris Evans), a boat repairing uncle who quit his professorial career in order to take care of his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace), a young girl who displays the prodigal math genius that her mother had before she tragically took her own life some six years earlier. The reappearance of domineering grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) sparks a bitter custody battle that threatens the stability and bond that Frank and Mary have built, and the narrative proceeds in the form of a tug of war between best interest versus self interest for the majority of the characters. Though the subject matter and themes of Gifted absolutely have the potential to stray in to cheesy Lifetime movie territory, I’m pleased to report that the film is a genuinely endearing, charming and engaging watch. With the help of sharp, smart dialogue, the eternally risky plot point of a precocious, intelligent child is handled with great care and proves to be the film’s greatest asset rather than its bugbear.
Comparisons with the likes of Matilda are inevitable, but Gifted takes these similar themes of childhood genius and strained familial ties and approaches them with a much more mature and refined palate. What starts as an argument between giving a girl a normal life or giving her all the tools to exploit her gift quickly branches out in to an exploration of the questionable processes and decisions that take place within a custody courtroom setting. The audience is put in the position of investing in a sweet, loving relationship only to see it criticised from the outside by uninformed strangers, a device that I find equal parts frustrating and interesting in cinema, and one that we have seen many times before to varying degrees of success. In this instance, the relationship we witness between Frank and Mary is one that the audience immediately wants to preserve, and the film does a fine job of making us care so damn much.
Alongside the genuinely fun, insightful dialogue, there is a real tenderness to the film that stays on the right side of saccharine throughout, the filmmakers doing a great job of keeping the train from going off the melodramatic tracks. On the whole, I will say that I like my movies to be a little less ‘sweet’, but Gifted is just like having sugar in your tea, you might not always be in the mood for it, but at the right time, it can make you feel a whole lot better. It’s not a ‘great’ film by any means, but there are enough twists and turns combined with solid execution both behind and in front of the camera to make it a perfectly enjoyable film watching experience.
The winning formula of the film really comes from the great performances from all of the central cast. With the exception of his brief work in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, this actually marks the first time I have seen Chris Evans in a leading role, and I am extremely impressed with his charisma and chemistry with every on screen partner from love interest Jenny Slate to niece Mckenna Grace. Evans has that unteachable quality of being a ‘proper movie star’, and though his great performance still isn’t enough to persuade me to get involved with the Captain America side of things, he has a new fan in me. As child genius Mary, young Mckenna Grace gives a truly fantastic performance. Never, ever annoying or out of her depth, the actress has full command of her character and it’s so refreshing to see films now that have genuinely talented young performers in them rather than just stunt casting for the sake of cuteness. Together Evans and Grace make for an instantly loveable duo, and it can’t be overstated how important the strength of their on screen chemistry is to the overall success of the picture.
As neighbour Roberta and teacher/love interest Bonnie, both Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate give really enjoyable performances as two women who come from different angles but both want the best for Frank and Mary. Both performances help to build an authentic feeling universe around the protagonists whilst also being given their own chances to shine in certain scenes throughout. It’s another example of how high profile support casting can really enrich a film. As antagonist grandmother Evelyn, Lindsay Duncan is perhaps the most underdeveloped of the characters, a ‘outside’ figure swooping in with unwanted intentions. Duncan excels in playing the stubborn matriarch type, and though I feel her character had a little more to give, I can understand that the more foreign she is to the audience, the harder they rail against her intrusion.
Overall, Gifted was a completely unexpected and pleasant surprise. What I expected to be something bordering on Nicholas Sparks style cringe and sweetness actually turned out to be a really rewarding and charming 90 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, the film certainly doesn’t shy away from sentimentality, but it also boasts enough backbone and narrative intrigue to save it from being an irredeemable cheese fest. The script is much better than this type of Lifetime story usually warrants, as are the performances. Look out for Mckenna Grace, if she carries on this way she’ll be a star in no time.