Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is raising his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in a trailer park apartment somewhere on the coast of Florida. When she begins first grade and is quickly discovered by her teacher (Jenny Slate) to be gifted, Frank refuses to send her to a specialized school. Things get more complicated when his mother (Lindsay Duncan) shows up, and a custody battle ensues to determine what’s best for Mary’s future.
In case you’re wondering, no, Frank is not Mary’s legal guardian and never has been. He essentially kidnapped her after his sisters’ suicide, on the basis that “it’s what she would have wanted”, and his posing as her father is never addressed as a major issue. And this pinpoints one of the biggest problems of this movie. Chris Evans is a really likeable guy, and one of the most charming Hollywood stars. But he’s not likeable in this. Even though he admits to his past mistakes on occasion, his present actions make little sense and are clearly not in the best interests of Mary, despite how often he argues to the contrary. His argument throughout is that he wants to give Mary a normal childhood, but of course the problem with that logic is that ‘normal’ is an incredibly subjective term, especially as it’s defined in this film. The possibility that she could still have a social life, and be a devoted mathematician is unheard of for him. He’s clearly holding her back due to a misinterpretation of his sisters’ wishes and his own personal bias. We see that Mary doesn’t even like her “normal” school experience, and that all she really values in this humble regard is her home-life, which she could still maintain if he just agreed to the free enrolment at the higher education institute.
Frank’s only framed as the hero because his mother on the opposite side of the fence is cartoonishly villainous. And the reason she’s so exaggerated is because her stance is the one that under conventional circumstances, makes sense. But the film can’t have that; they need the poor underdog boat repairman to beat the snobby elitist who can’t possibly care about Mary’s future as genuinely as he does! So they play her up as someone who never really cared about her children, and is vicariously living through the achievements of both her late daughter and promising granddaughter. There’s a scene where she gives testimony to an incident she reacted to quite understandably given the context, but it’s manipulated to sound like the actions of an evil parent trying to prevent her daughters’ happiness.
Evans is trying his hardest though, it’s the script that’s hurting things. The film is very poorly written in a number of places, with some awkward exposition and conversations. But the dialogue fares okay in comparison to the composition itself. The story direction is very confused, as if the writer didn’t quite know where he was going, indicative by some brand new developments in the last act, a ridiculously irrelevant detour in a hospital, and a lazy deus ex machina ending. In a few moments there are even bizarre choices made that detract from the drama. There’s a scene between Frank and Mary that’s supposed to be really dramatic and sad, but all I could focus on was Ice Age playing on low volume in the background (which of course, is Fox’s biggest animated film franchise).
The one really redeeming factor throughout all of this is Mary herself. Mckenna Grace is quite good in the role. Sure, some of her dialogue is forced and gimmicky, milking the novelty of a seven year old saying really grown up things and cracking overly cute one-liners. But this behaviour is in tune with her character; and when it comes to the emotional bits, and the unfiltered childishness, she’s superb. Her relationship with Frank is also endearing, in spite of his many faults. She and Evans have good chemistry, he might as well have been her father. This character and this relationship should belong to a much better movie. As for the supporting cast, Jenny Slate is decent but doesn’t stand out, Octavia Spencer puts much less effort into her role as Roberta, Frank and Mary’s neighbour, than she did in Hidden Figures. And can we please stop typecasting Lindsay Duncan as stubborn, heartless, pompous types? She’s better than this!
This movie wants to be an amalgam of Good Will Hunting and I Am Sam, but doesn’t know how. The ways in which Gifted fails remind me of Will Smith’s Collateral Beauty; and while this film isn’t nearly that bad, it speaks to a recurring problem in certain dramas of late, concerned more with evoking and manipulating emotion, rather than telling a sensible, cohesive story. And the more filmmakers realize that’s not enough, the better their films will be.