You know those dramatic reenactments that feature in murder mystery shows where it’s like watching aliens pretend to be people because while everything looks normal enough, the interactions are just ever so slightly stiff and unnatural, like everyone is super aware of the camera on them? And do you remember the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, full of cutesy down-home anecdotes that seem to exist solely to make you cry? And you know the “For Dummies” books, which strip down every topic under the sun so that you can become a faux-expert in anything? Well, if you take all these ingredients—the not-quite-human drama of reenactments, the mawkish commodification of comfort, and the oversimplification of complex thought—and put them together in a movie, you get the new Chris Evans flick, Gifted.
Frank Adler (Evans) is a down-home hero in the mold of Nicholas Sparks, right down to living in a sun-drenched coastal town with a sassy neighbor, a boat, and a one-eyed cat. Frank is the guardian of his niece, Mary (McKenna Grace, Designated Survivor), who is a precocious but not intolerable Movie Child, and also a Good Will Hunting-style math genius. Frank, it turns out, comes from a family of geniuses, including his cold British mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, Sherlock), and his dead sister, Mary’s mother who died by suicide when Mary was but an infant. Frank is also a genius, but not a math one. No, he’s a former philosophy professor—he’s a GENIUS OF THE HEART AND MIND.
To save Mary from the same tortured fate as her mother, Frank is raising her in Florida, away from the halls of New England academia, although why anyone expects a normal person to come out of Florida baffles me. Florida only produces future Mad Max road warriors, everyone knows this. Anyway, Frank and Mary are in Florida, with their one-eyed cat and sassy neighbor, Roberta (Octavia Spencer, underserved). Frank decides to send Mary to public school for first grade, and this part of the movie is actually pretty good. Frank is worried about the signs of arrogance and impatience he sees developing in his genius niece, and wants to save her from the isolation and frustration of being smarter than everyone around her. Evans is convincing as a guy struggling to balance the intellectual and emotional needs of a child, while also sorting out his own survivor’s guilt following his sister’s suicide.
But Gifted can’t maintain any sense of organic storytelling as contrivances and conveniences start piling up as soon as Mary goes to school. Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), spots that she’s a genius immediately, and promptly narcs on Mary to the school administration. This brings in experts, and, worse, Evelyn, who wants to take Mary back to Boston and raise her as a replacement genius for her dead daughter because Evelyn is basically a Dance Mom except for math. This prompts a Kramer vs. Kramer style court case where Frank and Evelyn battle for custody of Mary.
If Gifted was willing to be a little less pleasant, it really could have said something interesting about class and education, but it’s more interested in tugging heartstrings than examining the implication that a working-class person is incapable of properly managing a genius’s education. Melodramatic weepies aren’t inherently bad, but no one acts like a real person in Gifted, so the drama falls flat. The solution to Frank v. Evelyn is obvious, and therefore unsurprising when it appears. And I don’t want to knock people without health insurance, but Frank’s situation in Florida is designed solely to look unappealing to the courts, and likewise, everything about Evelyn and her world of academia is engineered to be unappealing to anyone with a heart, which gives the movie a weird anti-intellectual bent.
But Chris Evans and Jenny Slate have lovely chemistry, and Slate, in particular, is so good as Schoolteacher Bonnie that it is a shame when she virtually disappears in act three. (Gifted is a much better movie if you imagine it’s a romantic comedy about a single parent falling for his kid’s teacher.) That Gifted is at all watchable is due to the strength of this entirely likeable cast, and Marc Webb’s unfussy direction. But the story—scripted by Tom Flynn—is basically Little Man Tate For Dummies. Gifted comes off as a mostly harmless, if pretty much entirely stupid movie about smart people as imagined by aliens who don’t quite understand human emotion. But Chris Evans has made way worse movies, so Gifted gets off easy.
Attached - Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, and McKenna Grace at the New York premiere of Gifted last week, and Jenny Slate at the San Francisco screening of Landline.