Tuesday, April 18, 2017

'Gifted' review

Let's start this review off with a little fun fact- I spent eight years of my life at a school for gifted education. For my elementary and middle school life, I went to a school that specialized in teaching kids who had high I.Q.'s and could learn material at an advanced level. So yeah, I know the world that Gifted is set in. I know people like Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), the child genius at the heart of the new film from (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb. I know the world of controlling parents (not my parents, they're cool) and high pressure. For some context, here's an example- my school held a contest to see who could memorize the most digits of Pi, the infinite number that has amassed a cult-like following. My early school experience was not normal by any stretch of the imagination, so the central conflict in this film is an easy one for me to relate to and understand.

When Gifted tackles the inner struggle of Chris Evans' Frank Adler and the constant friction between normalcy and exceptionalism, this film really hits the mark. Evans is outstanding, Grace plays the spunky genius well, and there are some genuinely sweet and heartwarming moments. But Webb simply tries to do too much, and he packs Gifted with an overwhelming abundance of storylines, characters, and plot twists that don't really add up to much. This is a likable story, and Webb's gentle touch with characters and relationships is always welcome. It's unfortunate that the screenplay feels the need to take Gifted in so many ludicrous directions, creative choices that feel severely misguided as the film comes to its conclusion. It's hard not to like this movie, but uneven execution keeps it from ever reaching its full potential.

Gifted is the story of many characters, but the movie primarily belongs to Frank Adler and Mary, his genius niece. When Mary was just an infant, Frank's sister showed up on his doorstep and left him the child, later opting to take her own life. Frank believes that his sister would have wanted Mary to have a normal life, and for the next several years, he follows that philosophy religiously. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Mary's intelligence is far beyond any normal levels. When Mary is sent to a public elementary school for 1st grade, her teacher (Jenny Slate) immediately notices that she's a math genius. She is certifiably brilliant, and she belongs in a school with a curriculum that properly suits her unique needs.

The principal of the school offers Mary a scholarship to the Oakes School for gifted children, but Frank refuses. He wants Mary to be raises in a completely normal environment, one where she can make friends her age and hone her social skills. But when Evelyn Adler (Lindsay Duncan) gets word of her niece's brilliance, she makes her way down to Florida and becomes determined to wage a vicious custody battle against Frank- who, keep in mind, is her son. Evelyn believes that Mary belongs with her in Boston, where she can study at the most prestigious universities and work with incredible professors who will be able to challenge her intelligence. What results is a battle of wits between Frank and Evelyn, as they fight to do what they think is best for Mary.

Marc Webb makes films that are easy to like, and Gifted is no exception. It's an effortlessly entertaining film, one that managed to keep me engaged even during its most ridiculous moments. Webb made his feature debut with (500) Days of Summer, one of the best romantic comedies of the decade (if not all time), before heading into the Marvel world with The Amazing Spider-Man films. While I enjoyed the romantic emphasis Webb placed on those films, he got swallowed by the system and his unique touch was lost. I'm glad to see him back in the sphere of smaller, more intimate films, and judging by the fact that he has two more projects coming out in 2017, it looks like he'll be staying here. His contrasting approach of sunny realism is on full display in Gifted, a gorgeously shot film that makes excellent use of its Florida setting, while also tackling some rough material. Webb is a gifted (ha!) filmmaker, and even though this film doesn't entirely work, I still can't wait to see what he puts together next.

This film's primary downfall is the script by Tom Flynn, which haphazardly attempts to juggle a variety of subplots and characters. Some of the storylines are emotionally resonant, while others come across as forced and tedious, last-minute twists that take away from the grounded humanity that Webb establishes. When the story focuses on the relationship between Mary and Frank, as well as the competing ideologies associated with raising gifted children, this film soars. Chris Evans is excellent here, and he has a loving chemistry with McKenna Grace that truly works. But when Gifted switches its attention to superfluous secondary characters, like Jenny Slate's Bonnie and Octavia Spencer's kindly neighbor Roberta, or deals in absurd twists that will make most audience members roll their eyes, it loses much of its impressive momentum. When the film opened with a one-eyed cat and an adorable genius kid, I figured that Gifted would fall into the trap of being way too cutesy. Oddly enough, that's not the case- it's simply too outrageously unbelievable at times.

That being said, Gifted's 11th hour twists never stop the film from being breezy, generally amiable entertainment. In an uncommonly weak spring season, it's easy for me to imagine audiences turning to a film like this, one that manages to be sweet and inoffensive while still offering some great performances. I already knew Chris Evans was a great actor beyond Captain America because of his incredible performance in Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, but he continues to demonstrate his range as an actor. Marc Webb adds another solid indie to his resume, and while it never completely comes together, the filmmaker tackles some interesting questions about amazing children and the challenges they pose. Ultimately, Gifted never dazzles, but it gets the job done. Sometimes, that's all a movie has to do.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.9/10)

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