Whether it’s toddlers playing Chopin on “60 Minutes” or the five-year-old girl on “Ellen” spouting chemical formulas, we are fascinated with prodigies. Filmmakers also find these wunderkinds worthy subjects, with Jodie Foster’s 1991 directorial debut “Little Man Tate” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer” being two of the better results.
“Gifted” shares the story of 7-year-old math prodigy Mary Adler (McKenna Grace). Mary’s mother was a mathematical genius who committed suicide and left her infant daughter in the care of her brother Frank (Chris Evans). Frank has been home schooling his niece in his tiny house in Florida, where he works as a “freelance” boat mechanic.
Wanting her to have the normal life his sister never had, Frank sends her off to school, so she can have friends and be a Girl Scout. He does this over the protest of their neighbor Roberta, played by Octavia Spencer, who thinks that once the world discovers Mary’s talent, they will “take her away."
Frank cautions Mary to stay under the radar, which lasts until the first math test, a funny scene. Before you can say “binomial coefficients,” Mary’s grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) appears in Mary’s life for the first time. Evelyn is also a mathematician and although she disowned her daughter once she became pregnant, she now sees a chance to have her daughter’s unfinished work continue. (Note to self: Are math skills really hereditary? I owe my kids an apology.)
So, 15 minutes in we have a custody battle, and here is where the film’s formula falls apart.
Here, Evans is kind of a low-energy Ben Affleck (!) and his Frank is often so laid back he is prone. He doesn’t seem to fight for custody forcefully enough which is almost as annoying to the audience as it is to Mary. Unrealistic plot twists and nonsensical actions in this film by just about every character-- lawyers, teachers, principals and child welfare workers --really hurt the film’s credibility.
Jenny Slate is appealing as Mary’s teacher and Frank’s love interest. (Apparently Chris Evans thought so too as they were a couple during the making of the film and just recently split.) Her intelligence radiates through and gives her character some nice dimension in a supporting role. Spencer is underutilized in a small role, but her “Shame, Shame, Shame” karaoke duet with Mary is a highlight.
McKenna Grace is perfect as the sweet and salty Mary and her chemistry with Evans is lovely. Her spunky dialogue, kewpie doll eyelashes and a mouthful of teeth that are clearly a work in progress immediately bring to mind Drew Barrymore’s “Gertie” in “E.T.” which is the zenith for a child actor.
With schools using “Hidden Figures” to encourage girls in STEM studies, it would have been nice to see more math and less courtroom drama. Seeing Mary wowing academia by solving complex equations is far more interesting than numerous courtroom scenes, which echo “Kramer vs. Kramer,” (although here the overnight guest is wrapped in a towel due to the PG-13 rating.)
Another issue is that the villain Evelyn has so many witty lines that she never really seems a serious threat. (After her elderly husband buys a ranch in Montana in the midst of a full-on mid-life crisis, she refers to him as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Mutual.”) Brilliant, beautiful and veddy-British, as charismatically portrayed by Duncan, Evelyn is hard to hate.
Like Evans, Director Marc Webb has a background in superhero films, having directed two of the Spiderman films. He also helmed the terrific Zoe Deschanel/Joseph Gordon Levitt indie “(500) Days of Summer”, which had a unique premise and a stellar script.
“Gifted” has a strong cast and an interesting premise but unfortunately you don’t have to be a genius to find holes in this plot. With the rising popularity of faith-based films and the enormous success of “Hidden Figures,” it is clear that audiences are hungry for movies about families and math.
“Gifted” should have fit that equation, but in keeping with the math theme, this movie has problems.
2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer
Director: Marc Webb
Running time: 101 minutes
Rating: Rated PG-13
The lowdown: Frank, a single man raising his 7 year-old math prodigy niece, is drawn into a custody battle with his mother.