In an era of hot-housing, fast-tracking, and helicopter parenting, ideas like ‘let kids be kids’ seem positively retro. In its own low-key way, Gifted (2017) is batting for the rights of children to have a childhood, disguising its message in a heart-warming family drama with stellar acting and a child star who is impossibly adorable.
Former philosophy professor Frank Adler (Chris Evans) gave up his career to care for his seven-year old niece Mary (McKenna Grace) after her maths genius mother committed suicide. He repairs boats while neighbour Roberta (Octavia Spencer) looks after Mary and they all get on just fine until Mary starts schooling. She is a child prodigy who can already handle college-level math and is quickly bored at school. Frank is advised to enrol her in a school for gifted children but he just wants her to have a normal life. Enter the wicked grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) who threatens a custody order if he does not raise her as a gifted child. Evelyn is also mathematically gifted and there is big prizemoney in solving the problem that her daughter took to the grave. Mary becomes a pawn in a battle that pits greed and parenting claims against Mary’s rights to have a normal childhood.
This story uses every narrative cliché in the book as well as standard formulas for saccharine cuteness, yet McKenna Grace can still charm audiences no matter how stereotyped and predictable the story. Delightfully precocious, she is an island of innocence and quick wit surrounded by a messy swirl of squabbling grownups. In case Mary cannot reach all the heartstrings by herself, there is a one-eyed cat named Fred who is threatened with extinction in the film’s only moments of excitement. Chris Evans does a more than passable job as the reluctant uncle who becomes the kind of dad any kid would want, and the scenes where he must leave Mary in foster care are a callous manipulation of audience tear-ducts. Of course, embers of obligatory romance with one of Mary’s teachers smoulder in the background and fortunately stays there other than when needed for touches of romantic comedy.
This is a well-paced story free of distracting sub-plots and supported by a high calibre ensemble. In an era of political correctness about non-traditional families it is refreshing to see a non-biological dad elevated as parent-hero. But if truth be told, it’s all about the kid. McKenna is a gifted child actress who steals every scene. The film’s message about the rights of children to be children will most likely get lost in the clutter of grown-ups needing to grow up. But that matters little because this is not a film for over-thinkers. It is light entertainment that is impossible not to enjoy.
Director: Marc Webb
Stars: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Octavia Spencer, Lindsay Duncan