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Gifted •••1/2

Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Marc Webb
Screenplay: Tom Flynn
Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: April 14, 2017



Well Scott, this next movie is my gift to you. Let’s hope it’s not re-gifted.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

After seeing your teeth, I’ll never look a gift horse in the mouth again. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace) who is as adorable as she is precocious. Her uncle Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is trying to convince her that she needs to go to grade school and not be home-schooled any more. He wants her to get out and among other children her own age, despite the fact that she’s smarter than most people – in fact she’s a genius. She goes to school and impresses her teacher, Bonny (Jenny Slate), with her aptitude. Soon, the principal gets involved and everyone wants Mary to go to a school for “gifted” children.

Frank resists all suggestions that Mary deviate from the normal life of a young kid. We learn that Frank’s sister Diane (Mary’s mother) was also a math genius, and that Diane’s mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) forced Diane to focus only on math at the expense of a normal childhood. As a result, Diane became a severely depressed adult, a fate that Frank wants to spare Mary. A court battle ensues between Frank and Evelyn over Mary’s fate.

This film bears a striking similarity to 1991’s Little Man Tate In which Jodie Foster plays a mother trying to make sure her 7-year old genius son gets a normal upbringing. With a nod towards 2014’s Black and White where Kevin Costner tries to keep his mixed-race child. Gifted raises the question of whether a gifted child is the property of family or of society. Is it better that a child grow up to her full potential and the benefit of mankind, or be allowed to integrate with her peers.

Gifted fails to answer this question and ultimately offers a middle ground where Mary goes to special school and also integrates with ordinary children in Brownies and soccer. It’s not a satisfying answer, but makes for a harmonious ending.

Greg, I must confess that Gifted won my heart. The story pivots around determining the best way to raise a young child genius, with loads of family baggage interfering with the kid’s best interests. Evelyn is using Mary to fulfill her (Evelyn’s) unfulfilled dreams of solving mathematics’ most vexing problems. Our hero Frank isn’t “using” Mary per se, but he himself is guilty of overcompensating for his sister’s loss by denying the development of the girl’s genius.

We have a duo hero pairing of Frank and Mary. There are multiple layers of hero’s journeys here, with the Mary’s departure to public school, then another departure when Evelyn appears, and yet another when Mary is sent to a foster home. Each layer offers challenges to our heroes, with Frank navigating through the legal system and Mary navigating through emotional hardship.

It’s interesting that you call Frank and Mary duo heroes. In our study of heroes we’ve seen romantic duos, buddy duos, and family structure heroes. We haven’t seen many father/daughter heroes. We also have the mother/child dynamic between Evelyn and Frank. There’s baggage aplenty that needs to be sorted out.

Still I see Frank as the main character and Mary the pawn in a power struggle between our hero Frank and the villain-mother Evelyn. We care about Mary’s ultimate disposition but it’s Frank who has agency and is at odds with powers above him.  

But the fact that it isn’t clear who is the hero in this story is an indication of weak storytelling. We also have a mentor in next-door-neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) who offers little in the way of advice and gifts that normal mentors give. In fact, she seems to be there mainly as a babysitter that allows Frank to have a night off and get into trouble. As a character, she really doesn’t do much. Overall, it’s a weak bit of story structure.

I see the character of Mary as a dynamic, highly memorable person who just about steals the show, thanks to skillful acting from Mckenna Grace. Mary is far more than a pawn. She’s on equal heroic ground with her father Frank, in my opinion.

Both hero characters undergo a meaningful transformation. Mary has to roll with the punches, and there are many of them, and so we witness her growing emotionally and socially. Frank is the hero character who must soften his rigidity. Convinced his sister would focus only on developing Mary’s social skills, Frank neglects Mary’s genius but comes around in the end to the idea of honoring Mary’s intellect while balancing it with socialization.

There is a bit of transformation, but it doesn’t seem dramatic to me. Frank gives in a little and allows Mary to grow intellectually. Evelyn relents and lets Frank and Mary go their way. But of course, Evelyn only does so because she has what she wanted – the solution to a mathematical puzzle that confounded her and was realized by her own daughter. Still, I don’t see Mary transforming much. She was a smart and precocious child at the beginning and is still the same at the end.

Gifted is an entertaining if idealized look at the challenges of raising a gifted child. It glosses over the fact that genius is not typically inherited but rather a sporadic happenstance. Mary is an adorable seven-year-old (capably played by an eleven-year-old Mckenna Grace). We quickly fall for her charms. The film doesn’t really answer the questions it raises and settles for a middle ground that satisfies the audience. I give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

I feel stories need clear and identifiable heroes, villains, and mentors. It isn’t clear who the hero of this story is. Scott, you feel it’s the duo of Frank and Mary. Yet I can make a good case for it being Frank. And I think a good case could be made that Mary is the hero and Frank is the mentor. And still we could argue that teacher Bonny is a mentor character. When the distinction between our heroes and ancillary characters is blurred, it is difficult to have a satisfying ending to the story. I give our blurry heroes in this story just 2 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, there’s not a lot of clear transformation here. Frank appears to give a little by letting Mary get some college education. Mary is smart and cute from beginning to end. And Evelyn is no more interested in Mary at the end of the film as she was at the beginning. I can only muster 1 Delta out of 5 for Gifted.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Gifted is a heartwarming tale of a child prodigy whose best interests are fought over by two heavily biased family members, each carrying different sets of baggage from the past. Mckenna Grace showcases her enormous talent as an actor in this film, and once I was able to get over Captain America being Mary’s guardian (Chris Evans’ former role), the movie unfolded in an effective and satisfying way. For providing good, emotionally fulfilling entertainment, I award Gifted 4 Reels out of 5.

The duo hero pairing of Frank and Mary had me rooting for them to overcome one heart-wrenching obstacle after another. These two characters enjoyed great chemistry, and we the audience are treated to seeing them grow up together in this film. Frank relies on his deceased sister Diane as his mentor, perhaps to a fault, and of course Mary’s mentor is Frank himself. Evelyn serves as a nice villain character, although we do recognize that Evelyn isn’t completely wrong to nurture Mary’s prodigious talents. I give this hero duo a rating of 3 Hero points out of 5.

Frank arguably undergoes the more dramatic transformation, as he recognizes that Mary’s interests are best served by finding a balance between leading a normal child’s life and nurturing her math genius. The villain Evelyn only comes around for selfish reasons. Mary grows emotionally, socially, and mathematically (which we call mentally in our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains). I give these transformations 3 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

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