May 19, 2017


The small film, "Gifted" (small in scope, feel, settings, and in its pint-sized protagonist) is delightful, well-crafted and asks the question of what it really means to be a successful human being, what it really means to be "gifted."

Mary, a seven-year-old math prodigy like her mother (who committed suicide) has been raised by her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), from infancy. We have an inkling that Frank might also be highly intelligent in his own right (he uses a lot of big words)--and we find out later that he used to be a philosophy professor, but now fixes boats and lives in a very modest housing complex with Mary and their one-eyed cat, Fred. However, the arrangement is unofficial and hasn't been ratified in the court system. Frank is homeschooling her because she's too smart for school, and can be rude and impatient with her peers. Roberta (Octavia Spencer) is the earth mother landlady whom Mary loves and who helps her to be just a little girl, have fun, and be warm and huggy. But Frank decides it's time for Mary to go to a regular school, so Mary reluctantly trundles off to the big yellow school bus. Roberta warns Frank that the shaky legal status of he and his niece could now easily be exposed and he could lose Mary. Frank doesn't seem too concerned. Everyone at school assumes he's Mary's dad, and he lets them.


Needless to say, Mary acts up and acts out on her very first day. She is bored silly and becomes sarcastic with her teacher, Bonnie (the squeaky-voiced Jenny Slate who gives a nuanced performance), and her fellow students. Bonnie practically stumbles across the fact that Mary is a genius. When Mary claims the little math problems she's given in class are "easy," her teacher throws an equation at her that no first-grader could pull off. (We know where this is deliciously going.) Mary does. Bonnie tries something harder. Mary does it in her head. The next, even harder problem that Mary does in her head, Bonnie needs a calculator for.

The tale starts off with heavy-handed exposition and super-stylized mis-en-scenes, but then relaxes into a more standard, almost made-for-TV dramatic milieu. But it's a comfortable style, and well-suited to this as-yet-unknown little girl whom we know will not have the luxury of remaining anonymous much longer.


Although Mary doesn't know how to be a kid, her uncle knows how to handle her and her giftedness, and they have a great relationship. After a few incidents at school, she and Frank have a chat. He tells her that she knows she's not supposed to "show off," and that she should have "compassion" on what she calls "idiot kids."

Chris Evans is almost "too big" for this movie--not just his Captain America star power, but his acting style and his movements: pause, linger, smolder, barely move, let the camera lean in and do all the work, barely emote, barely react, activate radio voice.... Maybe it's the director. Frank is meant to be the mysterious, nonconformist, "damaged hot guy"--but he's just a little too suave and casual somehow. Too much mugging and scenery chewing. Sorry. And I really like Chris Evans as an actor. He's just not displaying the earnestness of "Puncture."

And what of his petite co-star? Au contraire! This little actress may not be a real math savant, but she's certainly a thespian savant. Not one false note. A real natural. Her many contorted faces are the faces a real kid makes--and those tears! But then again, what is it with child and teen actors these days? Even mature, seasoned actors admit: "they're better than us."


Enter, Grandmother. Grandmother (Frank's mother who prefers to be called "Evelyn" by her progeny) is the cold-as-ice British matriarch, a somewhat frustrated mathematician who may have lived vicariously through her daughter and may have even pushed her daughter over the edge. She wants Mary to be in a gifted school to reach her full "potential." Frank insists that it was his sister's wish that he raise Mary as a normal kid.

There's are some sad little jabs where Mary realizes that figuring out who can/should/wants to raise her is a bit of a problem for everyone. She also realizes that Evelyn kind of regrets having children because "after more math." "Gifted" also seems to be a bit of "girls in STEM" propaganda. I mean, I'm all for equality and progress, but what if the majority of young women aren't terribly interested in making STEM their career or their life? Is that OK?

Evelyn fights valiantly in court to gain custody of her granddaughter (employing the aid of Mary's deadbeat Dad). She is vilified by Frank's lawyer, but smartly defends herself and her view of what is best for gifted individuals (and humankind), claiming that her deceased daughter "knew the responsibility she had been given" to make things better for all humanity.

The beautiful takeaway from "Gifted" is that being "gifted" is so much more than our talents, skills or abilities. Or as Mary says about Frank: "He wanted me before I was smart."


--As a philosophy aficionado, I recoiled in horror at Evans' mangling of "Cogito ergo sum."

--Frank talking with Bonnie about his "getting laid," as well as jumping in bed with Bonnie on the first date, cheapens Frank/Evans, Bonnie/Slate, "Gifted," all.

--There's a lovely little God dialogue--a bit of a cop-out and "throwing God a bone," but it has a nice "reason AND faith" ending:

Mary: Is there a God?
Frank: No one knows.
Mary: Jesus?
Frank: Good guy. Do what he says.
Mary: But is he God? (Roberta's a "believer.")
Frank: Be smart, but don't be afraid to believe in things, too.

I actually met a mom in New Orleans who had a little genius son and daughter (she and her husband aren't sure where their kids got their brains, either that or they were just being humble). The son was the elder of the two and was invited to attend a particular college while still in elementary school. He sat down with his parents and the administrators and told them he wasn't interested in going to their secular college because he wouldn't be able to talk about God there, and God was the most important thing in his life. He was presently going to a Catholic school where he could talk about God, and he liked that better.  :)

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