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Thursday, April 20, 2017 10:11 am

Honest Approach Elevates “Gifted”

There’s definitely some merit to W.C. Fields famous warning about the dangers of working with children and animals. They’re unpredictable, at time amateurish and guaranteed to upstage you just by being in the same scene.  That’s the danger films like Marc Webb’s Gifted run, what with its main character being a cute-as-can-be seven year-old who happens to be portraying a child genius.  All the focus is going to be on her and if the young actress cast in the role is the slight bit too childish or unable to convey a sense of realism, the movie will be unable to generate to the sense of disbelief required of the audience.

Mary (Mckenna Grace) and Uncle Frank (Chris Evans) get a surprise upon returning home in Gifted.
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Films.

Credit Webb for dodging that bullet in casting young Mckenna Grace, a 10 year-old dynamo who takes on the role of math prodigy Mary Adler in the film with a sense of maturity that belies her age.  Not one grandstanding moment, nor is a false note to be found in her performance, a compelling turn that allows the audience to be swept away by the custody drama that unfolds around her character, a protracted battle in which nobody walks away a winner.

Raised by her protective uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), the pair are living a peaceful life in Florida where the young girl is reluctant to attend public school.  Having been home schooled, her guardian realizes that its time his niece get out in the world in order to make friends and learn how to socialize. It doesn’t go well as on the first day she tells off the principal and during the next week, she breaks a bullies nose.  During this time, her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) notices that she’s far ahead of her other students, particularly in the area of math.  It doesn’t take her long to realize her new charge is operating on a genius level and recommends she attend a private school for the gifted.  Aware of the pressures Mary’s mother faced in dealing with her own genius and her ultimate suicide, Frank resists, hoping to shepherd the girl through a normal life. These plans are scuttled when his mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) arrives on the scene, requesting custody, intent on seeing that her granddaughter realizes her potential. 

Grandma Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) has an awkward meeting with her son (Chris Evan) and granddaughter (McKenna Grace) in Gifted.
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Films.

Echoes of Kramer vs. Kramer and I Am Sam resound throughout, yet the smart, witty script by Tom Flynn and Webb’s delicate approach help this film carve its own path.  Much of this is due to the fine cast who know not to oversell any of the film’s key emotional moments nor overstate the deft lines of dialogue they’re given.   The chemistry between Evans and Grace is genuine, the actor’s laid-back style holding him in good stead, a solid anchor to the actress’ smart, precocious nature.  There’s never a moment between them that’s overly cute or sentimental, while their conversations have a genuine quality that, at times, gives the film a fly-on-the-wall feel.  

Slate, Duncan and Olivia Spencer as Frank’s helpful neighbor, are very good as well, each of them responding to Grace in a remarkable way.  And while Fields’ statement does come into play here, as you find yourself constantly drawn to Grace, it’s not because she’s cute or affected, but genuine and honest.  This contributes greatly to the grounded nature of the story, which, in addition to its surprise-ending, puts Gifted at the head of the class where child-based dramas are concerned. 

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