Review: Gifted

Gifted (2017)
Dir: Marc Webb

Not to be confused with the Fox X-Men TV show ‘The Gifted’, this movie is the kind of heartwarming drama that you know from the synopsis and trailer is going to try to tug on your heartstrings. It’s got a precocious but sweet child with a tragic family situation, a hunky doting uncle, with the contrast of a complex custody battle, so sure, all the pieces are there but does it come together to hit its target?

Entrusted with guardianship of his genius niece Mary (McKenna Grace), Frank (Chris Evans) has to fight for custody to give her the normal childhood he believes his sister wanted her to enjoy when his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) wants her to be raised as she deems fit.

With the possible directions a film like this could take, I was worried it might be too much of a downer when my friends and I selected it to watch on a cold Sunday afternoon. Any film that features a custody battle for a child has the potential to be quite upsetting, and while it’s definitely emotive at times, thankfully the film aims more towards heartwarming and uplifting.

Avoiding the bad habit of many, the story doesn’t start by establishing the characters happy life then switching to a full-time court battle halfway through then sticking solidly on that until a verdict is reached. It goes for a more complex structure, finding a nice balance between the in and out of court scenes. The way in which the characters and development of proceedings are written also fittingly gives the sense that situations like this are not simple or a matter of ‘good vs. evil’, there’s no clear right or wrong side (though we may be led to lean towards uncle Frank) as all involved believe they’re doing what’s right and in the best interests of Mary and her rare intelligence.

Unavoidably there are moments that reminded me a little of ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind’, especially when Mary is placed in front of equations on a board, it would be hard not to include a scene like that though the film does something a little cleverer with it. For the most part though this steers away from delving into the intricacies of the maths and focuses on the human interest aspects of the story.

I found the character motivations particularly interesting, especially that of Mary’s grandmother played by Lindsay Duncan. It’s the most interesting role in the movie, her character is the antagonist of the piece, though she’s not evil, she is far more complex than that and we get a good sense of why she acts as she does, able to possibly even come to sympathize with her. It would have been easy to make the grandmother an outright villain, but there’s enough time and development given to her character and history so that we fully understand why she’s acting the way she does, even if ultimately we disagree with her.

Though far from her first film, this could arguably be seen as McKenna Grace’s ‘breakout’ role thanks to the prestige casting and director. She’s really very good and her performance bodes well for her having a decent career, at least as a child actor. She has been really busy since and is now set to appear in Marvel’s ‘Captain Marvel’ as the young Carol Danvers which could be really interesting, though it won’t reunite her with Evans.

Chris Evans is a good piece of casting for his #hunkle role, he’s always solid in everything he does and brings a likable warmth which is exactly what’s needed. Octavia Spencer too is always wonderful, though her role seems like it is just ‘supportive friend and neighbour’, something that overlaps with Mary’s teacher (and Frank’s love interest) played by Jenny Slate, rendering one of them slightly redundant, though I’d say it was Slate’s role that falls by the wayside and adds very little other than unnecessary over-complexity to the film.

Though I felt that the film is nothing new or outstanding, it does seem to do exactly what it sets out to, hitting almost all the right notes along the way. Even though there are bits and characters that I think could have been improved, the central pairing of Evans and Grace works so well that the sweetness of their relationship covers over most other weaknesses, allowing the film to hit the emotional target it was aiming for.

‘Gifted’ is widely available to buy or rent, probably also included in some streaming services too. It’s a surprisingly well balanced and paced film that errs on the uplifting side of things, bolstered by some great performances and nicely developed characters. It won’t change your life, but it’s also not a throwaway.

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