Film & Television

‘Gifted’ Succeeds Thanks to its Very Gifted Young Star


Gifted is certainly a feel-good movie. But, one of the things that makes it better than it even needs to be is its remarkable young star. McKenna Grace, who will turn 11 next month and already has more than 40 screen credits to her name, seems to pull off the impossible. She’s at once adorably cute and obnoxiously precocious. A scared little kid on the one hand and enraged by the world on the other (her scowls are of mythic proportion), her acting is so real and so raw that it breaks your heart. She doesn’t just cry when she is forced to leave Frank, she lashes out, hitting him again and again, poignantly showing how any child, even a brilliant one, is at the mercy of the adult world.

McKenna, described by all involved as a consummate professional, related to Mary’s need to stay a child. “Even whenever I am acting on set I’m still, you know, a kid because I’m kid at heart,” she says.

“She’s hilarious,” Gifted’s director Marc Webb recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “She has this weirdly amazing comic timing that’s not like Nickelodeon, God bless Nickelodeon, but it’s a different kind of sophistication that is very deep and very pure and really sincere. And to find it in a child of that age is extraordinary.” Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, who shines as Roberta, agrees. “When you have talent that big, you give it room and allow it to bloom.”

Handsome Chris Evans, who plays Frank, can’t sing McKenna’s praises loudly enough. The two actors spent a lot of time together onscreen and off-, and in interviews, they sound more like colleagues and contemporaries than an adult and a child. They sang songs together and tap-danced. Although there’s some colorful language in the film, McKenna created a “swear jar” and kept it on set. Evans owed her $5 for every unscripted swear word (and a full $10 if he used the F-word). After filming wrapped, the money was donated to charity.

Early on in Gifted, Mary complains that her first-day-of-school dress makes her look like a Disney character. This gets laughs, as do many of Mary’s lines. But, in Evelyn, the filmmakers have created a Disney-worthy villainess. The thankless role is played by Lindsay Duncan. As always, she turns in a masterful performance, but the character is too one-dimensional. Frank fears that Evelyn only wants Mary to feed her own ambition. He’s right. Period. End of story. On the one hand, recognizing this single-minded zeal enables him to finally thwart her. On the other, it might have been a richer, more satisfying story if the line between good guy and bad guy weren’t quite so definitively drawn.

Gifted wasn’t written or directed by a woman, yet it resonates deeply with female audiences. Critics have been less enthusiastic. For example, Rex Reed, who is never going to win a Mr. Congeniality contest, harshly — and misogynistically — dismissed the film by calling it, “a formulaic and manipulative tearjerker that is really nothing more than a woman’s picture from a man’s point of view.” Reed ignores the fact that in film, formulas often work and work well. And, of course, the implied pejorative of a ‘woman’s picture’ is downright offensive.

I would argue that, above all else, Gifted is a family picture. It makes a compelling case for families, especially those that we consciously build, filling in the blanks that fate or happenstance have left behind. As Mary notes, Frank wanted her ‘before she was smart.’ Roberta is more of a mother to Mary than Evelyn, her own flesh and blood, can ever be. If centering a movie around family relationships rather than special effects makes it a ‘woman’s picture,’ than I say, “Bring it.” (And “Bravo” to the men who just did.)

Gifted is by no means a perfect movie. But, it’s perfectly delightful. And sometimes a film that makes you as happy as this one does can feel like … well … a gift.

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