Gifted (Fox Searchlight Pictures, PG-13)

Octavia Spencer does her best to breathe life into a hopelessly stereotypical role as neighbor Roberta Taylor.

Watching the contrived, glurgy Gifted put me in mind of the notorious United Airlines flight 3411—you know, the one where airline mismanagement led to a situation in which a paying passenger was forcibly dragged off the plane, his face bloodied, to the horror of the other passengers. Seriously, United? You couldn’t think of any other solution to a situation that was entirely of your own making?

No one gets concussed in Gifted, but otherwise the analogy holds: Some presumably intelligent adults steadfastly refuse to consider any of a myriad of logical actions in a situation, and in the process act stupidly and hurt the person they claim they are trying to help. Not irreparably, of course, because this is the kind of movie where you know from the start things will come out OK in the end, once everyone has learned the lessons they need to learn. Besides, I suspect Chris Evans has it written in his contract that, like Captain America, he always gets to win.

The central character in Gifted is Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), a seven-year-old entering public school for the first time. She’s a smart-mouthed, spunky kid who is frankly bored by her peers, perhaps because she can already do math at a graduate level. Despite Mary’s obvious intellectual gifts, her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) insists she attend classes with kids her own age at a backwater public school in Florida, while he spends his days repairing boats. Frank has this odd idea that developing one’s intellect must necessarily be at odds with being happy (or “normal,” since he regularly conflates the two terms), and he’s chosen happy mediocrity for Mary (never mind that she’s neither particularly happy at school, nor making any friends of her own age there).

Frank’s odd decisions regarding Mary’s education are tied up with the family backstory, which is revealed in dribs and drabs throughout the film. Here’s the gist: Mary’s mother was a phenomenally gifted mathematician who committed suicide and left her daughter for Frank to raise. Frank left his job as a philosophy professor at Boston University to devote himself to Mary’s upbringing. Mary’s brittle grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, giving the old college try to a thankless role just this side of Cruella De Vil) was also a gifted mathematician who gave it up for marriage and motherhood, as women were expected to do in her day. Now Evelyn wants to take Mary back to Boston with her to attend a school that will develop her gifts. Or, if that won’t do, Evelyn has arranged for a full scholarship for Mary to attend a local Florida academy for gifted children.

So you’re probably wondering what the problem is. Mary loves her uncle and he loves her. Her intellectual talents are undeniable. Good schools are available both locally and near grandma’s home. There’s plenty of money, and Uncle Frank could certainly find boats to repair in Boston should he decided to accompany Mary northward. But any logical solution would result in the world’s shortest movie, so everyone has to take a turn carrying the idiot ball and prolonging the conflict. Frank and Evelyn end up fighting over Mary in court, and a series of frankly unbelievable courtroom scenes lead to a highly improbably judgment that makes no sense whatsoever.

Octavia Spencer does her best to breathe life into a hopelessly stereotypical role as neighbor Roberta Taylor. The role requires her to be an alternatively spunky and saintly black woman who apparently has no life or family of her own, and is therefore always available to be of service to the Adler family. Because, really, what would an American movie about unhappy white people be without a magical Negro to show them the true path?

There’s also a one-eyed cat named Fred in Gifted, who plays an outsized role both as metaphor (guess who loves cats? and who is allergic to them?) and plot point (Fred indirectly propels this film to its conclusion, bless his feline heart). Gifted is melodramatic from start to finish, full of stereotypical characters, stock situations, and ridiculous plot twists. There’s also lot of Nicholas Sparks–worthy shots of the beach (Gifted was largely shot on Tybee Island, GA), and many, many tugs of the heart strings. If that’s the sort of thing you look for in a film, you may enjoy this one. If you prefer stories at least minimally grounded in a recognizable reality, however, you are better off giving it a miss. | Sarah Boslaugh

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply