Editor Chloe Woods reviews Marc Webb’s latest.
I must admit, I was a little wary of this film going in. While I’d heard good things about Gifted, the portrayal of highly intelligent children in movies is variable at best. They are so often caricatured, presented visually and tonally at a distance from any sense of childhood. The upcoming The Book of Henry, featuring an eleven-year-old who talks down to his own mother, is a model of the type; and it’s safe to say I was not comforted when a trailer for that film played before this.
Gifted, as it turns out, does not fall prey to these tropes. From the moment we meet her it’s clear that Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is, first and foremost, a little girl. She chases sandpipers across the beach and enjoys taking boats out with her uncle (and her cat). She runs when she’s told not to. While she can be obnoxious, bratty and defiant, these traits show up as the natural behaviours of a bored seven-year-old testing the limits of environments designed to constrain her. Mary is a smart kid, not a miniature adult: and by this I mean, nothing she does is in conformation to very adult ideas of what “clever people” do or consider themselves too good for. She hasn’t yet learned to worry about that; and with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans)’s influence, it’s very likely she’ll never care.
Mary is a child, pushed around by forces she has little say in. It’s Frank’s arc and choices that drive the film, starting with his decision to send her to an ordinary public school. After watching his genius sister Diane burn out under the pressure of hot-housing and intense research, Frank (no intellectual slouch himself) became determined to ensure Mary never suffered the same fate. But he may have swung too far in the opposite direction, leaving Mary – who can solve university-level mathematics – stifled in a classroom of peers learning to add to ten. It’s clear Frank is aware, early in the film, that the path he’s taken is but a guess and one many people would disagree with, and this provides the wedge by which his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) can lever away at his willpower and claim Mary for her own purposes.
Evelyn, the main antagonist of Gifted, is the most tragic figure in the vicinity. She sees Mary, not as the person she is, but as a vessel for her own ambitions – and a second chance at achieving greatness after being thwarted with Diane. At its heart, this film is not about giftedness or Mary’s talents, but about tangibly flawed human beings and the frailties of a single, exceptional, but very recognisable family. Frank and Evelyn’s dynamic pushes and pulls between civility, a shared sense of humour, deep-running resentment and sharply divergent life philosophies. Frank preaches compassion while Evelyn seeks greatness, and has allowed herself to become monstrous in the quest for it. It’s not clear if, by the end of the film, she catches a glimpse of her own reflection in the revelation of how Diane truly saw her: but her final breakdown is heart-wrenching nonetheless.
I don’t apologise for giving away that Gifted has a happy ending. As often happens in high-stakes films starring children and animals, it feels like it comes with a safety net; but there’s a reassurance in that. Knowing it’s likely to end happily makes the intervening upset easier to bear. Though it does bend disbelief at a couple of points for the sake of catharsis (I’m thinking here of the cat), for the most part Gifted plays its emotional hand well. It is a well-constructed, well-crafted film, hiding subtle dribbles of information behind more blatant exposition, and with a quirky approach to both sound and visuals. Often enough it decides we don’t need to hear the dialogue, and dials up the music to drown it out, letting the characters fade into their own lives. At other times it’s sight that vanishes: most memorably when, silhouetted against a glorious orange sky, Mary uses Frank as a climbing frame and he talks to her about faith. Later the camera shakes when Frank is at his most uncertain – allowing well-meaning people to sway him from his own judgement; the wisest people are those who know they know little – a nice touch; by the end, it is still and confident. The closing act echoes many lines from the opening, to substantial effect. And the film manages to integrate modern technology, something many in Hollywood are still figuring out, more handily than most (and to, sometimes, amusing effect).
It’s hardly without flaws, of course. Octavia Spencer, who – as usual – steals every scene he has lines in, is grievously under-utilised as Roberta. We know her character loves Mary but, outside that, she has little depth. The plot thread of Frank’s relationship with “Miss Stevenson”(Jenny Slate) starts strong but fizzles out by the end of the film. Evelyn segues into a caricature of herself at points. Though perhaps that’s necessary: only a cariacature of a human being could act as she does. By which I don’t mean such people aren’t real.
This is not a film, I’d like to make clear, about the dangers of genius. Frank might initially think that’s the story he’s living in: while he fosters Mary’s intelligence and thirst for learning at home, he’s wary of letting anyone else push her to her limits, in the well-earned fear she’ll end up like her mother. Evelyn provides a looming threat of that outcome and Frank is not wrong to push against her incanted platitudes of “What’s best for the child.” But Frank himself, who asked his niece’s school to “dumb her down into a decent human being.” By the end we see him come to the understanding that Mary’s gifts – if you have that kind of faith – are to be cherished and nurtured. Mary is not a gift, except perhaps as a person, to love and be loved; and it’s up to Frank to let her be whoever she’ll become on her own terms, as far as possible. While chasing sandpipers.
Gifted is out now in UK cinemas. See the trailer below: