Film & Television

‘Gifted’ Succeeds Thanks to its Very Gifted Young Star

I hadn’t planned to see Gifted.

Judging from the trailers for it, the movie looked like a nod to any number of earlier films — from Little Man Tate to Akeelah and the Bee, from Searching for Bobby Fischer to Queen of Katweh, with a bit of Kramer vs. Kramer thrown in for good measure. I thought I could predict exactly where the story would go: an extraordinary child growing up in an ordinary setting gets an opportunity to fulfill her potential, at the risk of missing out on the everyday joys of childhood. In answer to the unspoken question, “Is it better to be gifted or happy?” I anticipated a very strong argument being made for the latter.

What I didn’t anticipate was just how many of my friends would endorse it. Neighbors at the gym stopped and asked me if I was going to write about it. Friends who live farther afield posted glowing comments on social media. These are smart, savvy, grownup women, all of whom are probably familiar with the titles I dropped in the preceeding paragraph. Yet Gifted clearly struck a chord.

So, with summer on its way (which is, unfortunately, superhero season for Hollywood), I changed my mind. And, I’m so glad I did.

For the record, every assumption I made about Gifted proved true. The movie treads very familiar territory. And, you’ll see the happy ending coming from miles away. But it also boasts a marvelous cast and an engaging story. The scenery (most of the film takes place in southern Florida) is easy on the eyes. As is the movie’s (adult) star. And, it serves up a young heroine for whom you can’t help but root. That is, when you’re not laughing at her pint-sized temper or wiping away tears.

Seven year-old Mary Adler lives with her uncle Frank, a marine mechanic (and former philosophy professor, as we later learn). Her mother, a renowned mathematician, committed suicide when Mary was just a baby. She has been home-schooled to date, and parented with the help of her father’s landlady Roberta. As the movie begins, she is protesting the fact that she has to start school. There, she demonstrates a big IQ and an even bigger attitude. She attracts the attention of a well-meaning teacher and an overtly ambitious principal.

Outed as a genius now, she also attracts the attention of her grandmother Evelyn, a former mathematician herself, who lives in far-away Boston. There isn’t a warm bone in Evelyn’s body (the character is British, heavy-handedly ensuring that we recognize how cold she is). She has ignored Mary until now, but suddenly sees her as another chance to achieve the fame and prestige she had expected from her daughter. When she can’t convince Frank that Mary’s gifts should be nurtured, she fights him for custody.

What follows in several courtroom scenes is particularly ugly. Evelyn is painted as an obsessed unfeeling mother, while Frank’s shortcomings are cruelly uncovered. With both parties worried about the outcome, a logical but ultimately unbearable compromise is reached. Mary, of course, is caught in the middle. (At this point, you may want to have a tissue ready.) The story is resolved with a few unexpected twists, involving a text message, a storage locker and a one-eyed cat named Fred. I don’t think I’m giving too much away; I’ve already mentioned that Gifted is shamelessly predictable. Suffice it to say, you’ll leave the theater satisfied and smiling.

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