For a film about raising a gifted child, Gifted is curiously anti-intellectual. Of course, there are many ethical questions that come with raising a child prodigy. Where do your obligations lie? To society? To the child? To the child’s future self? But the film’s attempts to grapple with these questions are simplified and reductive. There are clear right answers in this film—and clear good guys and villains, too. (Hint: Those who think the child prodigy should be treated differently are the bad guys.)
Chris Evans, in full sensitive hunk mode, plays Frank Adler, who is raising his 7-year-old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), a math prodigy. Mary’s mother had been a math genius herself and had committed suicide when Mary was a baby. Frank, who repairs boats for a living, is mostly raising Mary off the grid, but as the film starts, he has just enrolled her in first grade, much to the consternation of his neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who is serving in an unofficial co-parenting role.
As Roberta predicted, Mary’s presence in a normal elementary school is quite disruptive. For one thing, she keeps rolling eyes over how juvenile her classmates are. For another, she comprehends math at a PhD level. There’s a great scene where Mary’s teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) asks Mary increasingly difficult math problems, until she is forced to bang the equation into a calculator to make sure the kid is right. (She is, of course.) Later, Frank tells Bonnie that Mary’s ability to do complex addition and multiplication is just a game, a simple party trick that anyone can master. But it soon becomes clear that Mary’s understanding of complex formulas is no mere trick.
Enter Frank’s mother, Evelyn, who has gotten wind of the fact that Mary is a prodigy and suddenly wants custody. Evelyn is played, with full imperious snootery, by British actress Lindsay Duncan, and I had to laugh at the film’s on-the-nose casting. Frank, an American, is earthy, decent, works with his hands. Evelyn, who cares only about intellectual pursuits, lives in a fancy penthouse condo in Boston. Oh, those Brits and their tea and crumpets and valuing of higher education. The film’s annoyingly anti-intellectual bent gets worse: It turns out that before he retired to a life on the docks, Frank was—wait for it—a philosophy professor. (One more deliciously heavy handed detail: Frank has a one-eyed cat named Fred; Evelyn is allergic to cats.)
The struggle between Frank and Evelyn, as you have no doubt surmised, is this: Evelyn wants Mary to attend a special school and audit classes at MIT, whereas Frank wants her to be a normal kid, who goes to Girl Scouts and has friends her own age. The elephant in the room is that Frank’s sister killed herself not because she was gifted, but because Evelyn isolated her from her peers and pushed her too hard.
On the bright side, little McKenna Grace is wonderful as Mary (this is a rare case where a movie kid’s precociousness is warranted). Also, and I assume this was a specific note by director Marc Webb, she has a way of climbing all over her uncle—using him as a human jungle gym of sorts—that is very touching and believable. (And who among us has not wanted to use Chris Evans as a human jungle gym?)
Another thing: Cinema has taught us that there is something uniquely satisfying about seeing someone upend expectations and solve a complex math problem as doubters stand by in shock. We saw this, obviously in Good Will Hunting and, more recently, in Hidden Figures. Of course, it adds to the film’s “smart people are bad” ethos that an MIT professor who first doubted Mary ends up looking like a fool, but I can’t deny that the scene delighted me.
Bottom line. Gifted may not have anything particularly enlightening to say about raising a precocious child, but as a tear jerker/crowd pleaser, it more than gets the job done.