Directed by Marc Webb (whose CV bizarrely includes ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ and ‘(500) Days of Summer’) and starring Chris Evans (who is coming to the end of his Marvel contract) – ‘Gifted’ is clearly a smaller, quieter, more personal project that is being squeezed in between saving the world. Evans plays Frank, who lives in Florida and repairs boats. He lives with his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), who in the opening scenes is reluctantly being sent to first grade, after a period of being home-schooled. Frank’s neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) helps out looking after Mary at the weekends and she thinks it’s a very bad idea to send Mary to school too.
The reasons for this reluctance becomes apparent early on when Mary is clearly bored and truculent in class. Mary complains about the work being too easy and her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) challenges her with some increasingly difficult sums. It turns out Mary is a maths prodigy. After getting into trouble at school, the principal suggests Mary go to a school for the gifted, but Frank wants her to lead a normal life, surrounded by normal children. The reasons for this become clear – Mary’s mother had been a child prodigy too and struggled with her genius for her whole life. Enter Frank’s mother Evelyn (one of my favourite British actresses – Lindsay Duncan). She wants to move Mary to Boston, have her home-tutored and pushed into becoming a world-class Mathematician, like her mother. The conflict turns ugly and becomes a custody-battle in court.
The acting talent that has been assembled is impressive. A film like this rises and falls on the charisma of its child star and their chemistry with the main adult (or adults) they’re interacting with. This is definitely a positive of ‘Gifted’ – McKenna Grace is a great find and clearly bonded with Evans and Spencer (as can be seen on the press tour). Because Evans is now defined by Captain America (and before that, Johnny Storm), he is an underrated actor. He has been subtly weaving in some indie projects between Marvel gigs for some time now, the most note-worthy of which is his directorial debut ‘Before We Go’. I, for one, am intrigued to see where his post-Cap career will take him.
The story is an interesting one – it is an age-old question – how do we best treat gifted children? It is really difficult to achieve a balance of giving them social skills, happiness and a ‘normal’ life, while also helping them meet their potential. There is no clear cut answer. However, the complexity and nuance of the issue is not fully explored here – Frank and Evelyn are pitched at opposite ends of the scale, with Duncan being painted as an almost pantomime villain. I wish the film had gone deeper into exploring why it is particularly difficult to be a female genius. It is hinted that Evelyn herself had to give up a promising career when she became a mother. Evelyn then views her daughter becoming a single mother as her downfall. The film does slowly and effectively peels away layers of Frank’s character and his relationship with his mother and sister. I wish more had been made of his brief affair with Mary’s teacher Bonnie. Slate is a gifted comic actress, who is under-used here.
So, while there were glimpses of subtlety within this film, it is all together too slight and surface-level. It is a light-hearted bit of sentimental fluff that fans of Evans will enjoy. I will admit he was the main selling point for me and there is even a bonus one-eyed cat, just to tick all of my boxes. The story and script ultimately cannot match the acting talent of the ensemble. They are not given enough to chew on and I fear the film will prove quite forgettable. However, it is worth an evening’s entertainment, if you want some escapism and something pretty to look at (of course I mean Evans).
Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: Tom Flynn
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer