“Gifted” is the story of a 7-year-old math prodigy named Mary, who’s being raised by her uncle, Frank. He wants her to have a normal life, so he resists efforts by her school’s principal to enroll her in a private school geared to academically-advantaged children. Soon Mary’s grandmother gets involved. She’s well-off, brilliant at math, too, and wants Mary to follow the educational path that will allow her to concentrate on learning at the expense of all else.
Let’s start with the high points of the movie. McKenna Grace is nothing less than great as Mary, and there isn’t one false note in her performance. She has the kind of screen presence that reminds me of Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon”, Drew Barrymore in “ET”, and Quinn Cummings in “The Goodbye Girl.” Chris Evans, who gained fame as Captain America in the Marvel movies, plays the much more down-to-Earth Frank, the man who’s been raising Mary since her mother committed suicide 6 years earlier. Lindsay Duncan is also quite good as the grandmother, the movie’s villain.
On the night of the screening of “Gifted,” I was talking with fellow movie reviewer Cate Marquis, who raised an important question. Why is it that athletically-gifted kids should be immersed in intensive physical training from a young age (think gymnastics, soccer, baseball or any other youth sport) to the detriment of their “normal life,” but academically-gifted kids shouldn’t? What’s so wrong with putting a very smart girl into an environment where she’s surrounded by other bright children, in a rigorous curriculum that encourages the expansion of their knowledge and is designed to meet their academic needs?
“Gifted” doesn’t dive into that question much, although it does have flashes of “Little Man Tate,” the 1991 Jodie Foster movie about a single mom raising a boy genius who faces the same kind of issues about how to raise a gifted child. Instead, it’s interested in the family dynamic, which leads to a custody battle in court that has echoes of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” with a couple of classroom scenes that reminded me of “Good Will Hunting,” and a genius-by-genetics question from “Proof.”
As for the supporting cast, Jenny Slate is fine as Mary’s teacher — who becomes a love interest for Frank — but I wonder whether there was more to that character that ended up on the cutting room floor. Then there’s Frank and Mary’s landlord/neighbor/pal, played by Octavia Spencer, who unfortunately doesn’t have much to do. It’s a little disappointing that, after winning an Oscar in 2012 for “The Help” and being nominated for another for “Hidden Figures” earlier this year, Spencer isn’t getting meatier roles than this.
All in all, “Gifted” is a heartwarming movie, which we need right now, and a reminder that child prodigies can be cute, too. It also is a wonderful showcase for McKenna Grace, whose breakout performance hits all the right notes as Mary. I give it an 8 out of 10.