I’ve always been something of a heartless bastard when it comes to kids movies or films involving children. It’s comparable to Gene Hackman’s reaction in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” when he sees his adopted daughter Margot’s play: “I’m just not buying it.” There’s this level of disconnect between material about or aimed at young children that never quite finds a way through my harsh, abrasive exterior. Every animated movie feels the exact same experience with every story point and emotional beat carefully plotted. Movies about children often seem formulaic to a fault—engineered for maximum button-pushing and heart-string plucking.
Up to now, I found these manipulative flicks unappealing. Then something changed: I had kids. If anyone takes the craft of criticism seriously, there’s a certain level of reflection and level-setting to be done from time to time. Tastes change—most people’s do anyway. There are some poor souls who get locked into a specific time and place in their lives and base every subsequent artistic proposition on a small cross-section of films during an influential time in youth. They’re the people who watch the same movies over and over again, and never allow their creative compasses to chart a new course.
“Gifted,” the new melodrama from Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer” and one decent “Amazing Spider-Man” movie), is the first movie I’ve seen that has exposed a fissure in my stony exterior. I always assumed having kids would one day make me less cynical about family movies. Eventually, I would start to soften, like a tube of frozen cookie dough left to thaw. While not a perfect movie, “Gifted” managed to be an entertaining piece of fluff. More so, it successfully manipulated me via my budding dad feels.
Frank (Chris Evans) is a blue-collar boat repairman who has been tasked with taking care of his niece, Mary (McKenna Grace). On her first day of school, viewers quickly will realize two things: Mary has trouble interacting with other children, and she is a math genius that makes Will Hunting look like Kellyanne Conway. Mary’s teacher, Bonnie (the great Jenny Slate), becomes excited by the prospect of her genius. Frank is far less excited, and tries to underplay Mary’s intellect in order to provide her a normal life.
It’s a great plan until everything is thrown into chaos by Frank’s mother who learns of Mary’s super brain. Cue the family chaos as Mary’s grandmother and uncle fight over what kind of life Mary could have. Frank’s focus is on Mary learning how to play well with others, and not letting her intelligence be a defining trait. Much of his consternation comes from the life of Mary’s mother, another genius plagued with a number of demons. Evelyn, on the other hand, wants private schools and a life that will help Mary use her genius and embrace her super intelligence.
It’s a pretty basic movie with pretty basic characters. None of it is particularly novel. I was reminded of Jodie Foster’s “Little Man Tate,” which posed similar questions about parenting a gifted child and obligations they have to use this amazing natural ability. My only problem with the film is the oft-travelled territory. “Gifted” doesn’t take us anywhere special; it’s a retread of similar movies, though with a little more melodrama thrown in for good measure. Maybe they should have called it “Clearwater by the Sea.”
The mediocre material is elevated by a good cast of actors who manage to bring life to the story. Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer and Chris Evans all do well in their respective roles. I did find myself invested in the relationship between Frank and Mary. The world expects a genius to be smart and do something with that gift, even though it is often the cause of so much unhappiness. I remember recently listening to the excellent podcast “Shit-Town,” which followed the life of a tortured genius in the Deep South who heard about a mother rubbing her pregnant belly and saying, “Please, send me a genius” over and over again. “Gifted” reminds us intelligence doesn’t always equal happiness and there’s more to life than calculus.