On narrative face value alone, there is hardly anything exceptional about Gifted, directed by Marc Webb to a script by Tom Flynn, which gives us the much-told story of abandoned child being looked after by an “unsuitable” guardian whom is challenged by someone more ostensibly capable of providing for the child’s perceived needs.
The child, in this case Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), a mathematical prodigy who at the tender age of six – not so tender when you hear how well she holds her own with the adults in her loving orbit – is able to grasp and argue theorems at university level and beyond, is being looked after by her ship-repairing uncle Frank Adler (Chris Evans) in Florida after the death of her mother and Frank’s sister some years before.
A classic set-up for movies of this ilk by any yardstick, an impression given even more weight when Frank’s starchly English, emotionally-removed wealthy mathematician Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) turns up from Massachusetts concerned that her granddaughter, with whom she has hitherto had no contact, is not being given the assistance she needs to fully realise her potential.
Thus is set a melodramatic tale as old as cinematic time in which the unworthy caregiver, who has a deep, abiding bond with his niece, has to face up, David vs. Goliath-like in a legal battle to the custodial death.
Been there done that got the emotionally manipulative T-shirt? Ah, not so fast.
For as this well-worn premise is unfolding, some very clever and emotionally-nuanced things are coming into play, and into play very effectively in fact.
For a start, there is a substantial richness to the relationship between Frank and Mary, both given life in meaty, deeply-appealing ways by exceptional performances by Evans and Grace respectively, which goes far beyond the usual sweet gooey performances that these kinds of films usually demand.
While Mary is most definitely still a kid in many ways, her gift has imbued with a savvy adultness, an attribute no doubt egged on by Frank’s willingness to tell it like it is; for all this amusing brashness, and much of the dialogue is robustly amusing and intelligent without being overplayed, there is also a strong caring bond between the two, with Frank determined to let Mary be a kid, no matter how much pressure there is on her to realise her genius, and fast.
It is this no-holds-barred intimacy – a little too rough-and-ready at times as Frank realises when he’s a little too honest about he doesn’t want Mary barging in on Saturday mornings when she’s in the care of neighbour and unofficial aunt Roberta Taylor (Octavia Spencer) – that gives the relationship between these two an authenticity that goes far beyond two people role-playing closeness.
There’s no cloying cuteness here, although Mary is adorable in her own unguarded way, an admirable omission since it is usually a staple of these melodramatic custody battles.
The same goes for Frank and Evelyn’s relationship.
Estranged yes but not broken, and even in the midst of the court battles which punctuate but never overwhelm the narrative, he is able to talk to his mother in reasonably civil terms.
Will he be throwing an extravagant, flower-bedecked Mother’s Day lunch anytime soon? Unlikely, highly unlikely in fact, but there’s no adversarial cartoonishness at work here, with both parties, one more than the other obviously, regretful that the custody of Mary has come to this.
All of which means that the back-and-forth of deciding who gets Mary, on what terms and how her life plays out, carries a real ring of truthfulness that enlivens and adds engaging substance to what is a fairly by-the-numbers narrative.
It also means that come the climactic final act when all kinds of things have gone down and everyone is called to make some fairly dramatic gestures, some of which could have easily descended into dire cheesiness, you never feel as if these aren’t real flawed, broken people battling things in a very real setting.
Gifted is consistently and deeply affectingly real all the way through, despite a premise that by any estimation is inimical to anything approaching substantial intimacy.
We understand at every turn why these characters are behaving as they are – Frank for instance doesn’t want what happened to her sister, driven to suicide, by unrelenting demands to be brilliant, to happen to Mary; Yes she’s bright but she’s also a little girl and should play at the park and join girl scouts – with even Evelyn accorded some fairly weight motivations, thus saving her from becoming evil grandmother with no redeeming features.
In fact, we come to almost sympathise, though not completely of course, since we are always meant to be firmly in Frank and Mary’s corner (that much at least is custodial melodrama 101), with Evelyn who is battling her own demons of regret and loss on multiple levels.
She is, therefore, quite human, and not a monstrous cartoonish antagonist, nicely balancing out Frank and Mary who are sweet, sassy, worthy and loveable but also not perfect either.
Gifted then is as close as down in the trenches at this kind of film gets, a blisteringly emotional resonant film at times – when Mary is temporarily separated from Frank as she must be at one point, it is agonising to watch them be pulled apart – that still manages to have some fun and silliness, and a little chilled down courtesy of Frank’s sort of girlfriend, and Mary’s teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate).
It evocatively takes us into a situation that likely confronts tens of thousands of people a year – when life is grossly unfair and people must scramble in the aftermath to make the best of things, how do you reconcile competing demands especially when children are involved.
It’s not easy, and Gifted winningly and heartwarmingly acknowledges that, while still managing to be an uplifting, and decidedly non-cheesy tribute to the power of love and belonging.