tv + film by Philbert Dy

‘Gifted’ is Built on a False Dichotomy

Smart people make dumb choices in this movie about genius.

NBHD movie 2 ticketsGifted beings with young Mary (McKenna Grace) arguing with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) about having to go to school. As it turns out, Mary is a child prodigy, with a particular gift for mathematics. Her mother was similarly gifted, but that gift led her down some dark paths, and Frank is determined to his niece a somewhat normal childhood. But Mary quickly proves to be too advanced for the entire school, and the principal calls in her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Frank and Evelyn’s strained relationship comes to fore as the two duke it out in court over custody of the young genius.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 4.20.51 PMIn theory, the conflict of this movie lies in differing ideas regarding what’s best for Mary. The film basically presents two extremes: a life of advanced learning in prestigious institutions, and a more normal life that includes things like making friends and playing outdoors, with the caveat that Mary is going to be studying in public school. The movie never really convincingly makes this choice out to be anything more than a false dichotomy, the characters made entirely schematic in their pursuit of a better future for this one child.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 4.21.24 PMThe film draws very little dramatic or emotional tension from the central split. The choice isn’t very difficult in the end: it’s a choice between a young girl getting to go out and play and sometimes sing with her friendly neighbor, and her being led down a path that apparently already caused incredible distress to her mother. In order to create any real conflict at all, the film plays lip service to the idea that Frank is ill-equipped to raise his niece, with him having no real regular work and no health insurance. This is in spite of the plain fact that Frank seems to have been doing all right so far, and that he could reasonably find better work and get health insurance.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 4.29.19 PMFor a film filled with supposedly smart people, the characters seem so incapable of coming together for a reasonable resolution for this problem. A compromise that eventually emerges proves to be a pretty dumb choice for all parties involved. It’s tough to suss out what these characters were intending to happen given the situation that they eventually put together. And the resolution of it gets into even shakier territory. It feels neither logical nor emotionally true, which is a real failure given the film’s adherence to dualities.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 4.28.47 PMMarc Webb offers little of the flash he’s shown in previous films. The direction feels safe and unimaginative, the characters bathed in sunlight in sweet moments, and shrouded in gray in tougher parts. The acting is a bright spot, though. Chris Evans and Lindsay Duncan really shine in the rare moments where their characters are given a chance to be more than symbols to two warring extremes. McKenna Grace makes the intelligence of her character seem credible. Jenny Slate isn’t given a whole lot to do, but she brightens up every scene that she’s in.Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 4.28.28 PMGifted just doesn’t seem smart enough to tell this story about supposedly smart people. Or at least, it doesn’t trust audiences to be smart enough to deal with a genuinely complex problem. It makes it all out to be black-and-white: a choice between giving Mary a real childhood or locking her away to do nothing but math problems until she snaps. And in the pursuit of those two extremes, the characters end up making all manner of illogical choices that make them out to much dumber than they really ought to be.

Philbert Dy
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.
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