In 1999, George Carlin recorded a set called You Are All Diseased, in which he did a segment ranting about the then current obsession with children. Not that that obsession has abated at all over the last two decades, but he specifically went off about parents overloading their children with structure and play dates. After a couple of minutes of this, he hammers the point home with a quote that perfectly sums up the movie Gifted – “if you want to help your children, leave them the fuck alone.”
(Mild SPOILERS ahead.)
In Gifted, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is raising his seven-year old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), in Nowherespecial, Florida. Mary is a mathematical prodigy, like her mother and grandmother before her. Prior to Florida, Frank was a college professor in Boston and Mary’s mother was working on one of the so-called Millennium Prize Problems (the Navier-Stokes problem – Google it). When Mary was six months old, her mother committed suicide, prompting Frank to move to Florida with Mary to get away from her maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Somehow, Evelyn learns about Mary’s gift and decides to sue Frank for custody of Mary. Much of the film focuses on the lawsuit, while the rest of it spends ample time developing the three characters, plus Frank’s neighbor and landlord, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), and to a much lesser extent, Mary’s first-grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate).
Even without seeing Gifted, you should already see the parallels to Good Will Hunting. A super-smart kid is caught in a tug-of-war between two really smart people with one pushing the kid toward academic superstardom and the other pushing the kid toward being a decent human. In Gifted, Evelyn is obsessed with Mary being substituted in to continue her mother’s work because Evelyn regrets giving up her own ambitions to raise her children. Frank is just trying to be the best father he can be and believes that Mary’s mother wanted Mary to have a “normal” life, which is why he took Mary to get away from Evelyn. Mary doesn’t know what she wants because she’s seven, but then nobody ever asks her either. The only thing missing is a great story about missing a Red Sox game, which is actually really plausible in this film.
This is all your kids really want from you.
While there are some minor plot issues, almost all involving the court room scenes (Frank’s lawyer apparently doesn’t recognize badgering when he sees it), the strength of the movie lies in the characters and their performances. Roberta is the wise sage continuously warning Frank that he might lose Mary if he insists on putting Mary in public school. Spencer gives her typical great performance, including a couple of heartfelt scenes with Mary. Evans isn’t spectacular, but he gives a very solid performance, making you care about Frank’s choices and you believe that he really is trying to do right by Mary. Slate makes the most of Bonnie, but her character is the very definition of supporting from the background. Her only real moment in the film is her initial exchange with Mary where Mary answers remedial arithmetic questions, followed by much more difficult multiplication questions, and the epiphany that Mary is gifted. The good thing is that while she predictably becomes Frank’s love interest, she is never used to deliver a piece of advice or have that misunderstanding moment with Frank. She’s literally there to support him while he deals with Evelyn and she gets that.
But those three are nothing compared to Evelyn and Mary. By the climax of the film, you will be rooting so hard for Mary to stay with Frank and so hard against Evelyn that you might be actively wishing for Evelyn to get eaten by an alligator. It is Florida, mind you. When you try to think of truly loathsome villains, you probably think Joffrey or the Governor from The Walking Dead. Add Evelyn to that list because she is the person George Carlin was talking about – awful people who care nothing for the needs of the children and only about living vicariously through those children, pushing them in order to gain fame through them. Gross and well done Miss Duncan.
This is what evil looks, honey.
Topping Duncan, young McKenna crushes her role, delivering a performance that is far beyond her ten years on Earth. Mary is the kid every parent wishes for. She cuts through the bullshit, asks the right questions, and follows Frank’s rules about as good as any seven-year old can be expected. The best part is we get to watch her taking in human lessons as easily as math. In one of the best sequences of the entire film, she deals with a bully on the bus (who bullies another kid), then congratulates the kid during class on having the best project (that was wrecked by the bully). It’s the kind of touching moment that very few films can manage and I found myself wiping away tears. Yeah, I’m a parent and now I cry at scenes like that in movies, as well I should.
Among the current movie slate of subpar action films and soulless remakes, Gifted stands out as an honest bit of storytelling with very memorable characters. If Carlin were still with us, I’d like to think he’d applaud this movie for realizing his rant in the form of Evelyn and bringing home his point in the form of Frank. If anything, enjoy two great performances and take Carlin’s point to heart.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and go give your kid a hug.