Blu-ray Review: Gifted (2017)

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The director of The Amazing Spider-Man guides the star of Captain America through the story of a blossoming young math prodigy. Marc Webb's Gifted finds Chris Evans as Frank, a former philosophy professor who forsook his career in order to raise his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace). Recalling Jodie Foster's directorial debut Little Man Tate, Mary is a seven-year-old math wiz who puts her new school teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate) to shame. Her late mother, a brilliant mathematician, never wanted Mary to also be subjected to life in a think tank. Frank strives to maintain some semblance of normalcy for Mary.
rsz_gifted_4.jpg Webb maintains a low key, easy-going charm that keeps Gifted afloat for awhile. Before Mary's maternal grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) enters as the ostensible villain (she doesn't believe Frank is allowing Mary's skills to flourish, which is true), there's fun to be had watching Mary perform complex math problems, amazing all around her. It helps that Mckenna Grace (Designated Survivor) is such a naturally appealing young actress. Grace gives Mary a tart edge that effectively communicates her awareness that she's in effect burdened by her own incredible abilities.

But again, once Evelyn enters the picture—struggling to gain legal custody of Mary in order to put her in a special program—the tone shifts. Initially this isn't such a bad thing. Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn introduce the notion that part of the outwardly-selfless Frank's motivation in carrying out Mary's mother's wishes is less than altruistic. A history of sibling rivalry between Frank and his late sister (after all, she was a certifiable genius while he was "only" a successful university professor) might've played an underlying role, Evelyn insists. But in an attempt to keep Frank's halo in place, this angle is mostly downplayed and eventually ignored in favor of increasingly manufactured feel-good moments. 
rsz_gifted_3.jpg Gifted missteps in two vital areas. The plot mechanics by which Frank begins to piece together how unhealthy the atmosphere Evelyn has created for Mary are hokey, at best. And that's a shame, because Lindsay Duncan also delivers a knockout performance. Her Evelyn has good intentions, for the most part, and Duncan portrays her as a complicated, misguided heroine of sorts. It's hard to feel that Frank's 'treat her like a normal kid' ethos is necessarily the best path. Perhaps Evelyn's 'isolate her like a science project' approach isn't really any better. Unfortunately Frank, as a character, isn't conceived or portrayed with the same level of complexity as Evelyn.

And that's not the worst of Gifted's characterizations. Frank's landlady and Mary's some-time caretaker Roberta (Octavia Spencer) is conceived as a wholly unwanted throwback to yesteryear's grotesque "mammy" characterization. Maybe Flynn and Webb thought it was okay because Roberta owns the trailer park where Frank and Mary live. But Oscar-winning Spencer is playing a role with no other purpose than to serve her favorite tenants. Always at Frank's beck and call, Roberta willingly drops whatever life she may have (who knows what that would be, the filmmakers didn't give her any inner life) in order to babysit Mary. That includes whenever Frank wants to step out with the film's other terribly underwritten female character, Slate's elementary teacher Bonnie. 
rsz_gifted_bd.jpg Gifted is now available on Blu-ray via 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The Blu-ray supplements excellent A/V specs (prior Oscar- and Emmy-nominee Stuart Dryburgh's 35mm cinematography is a treat) with a few special features. Eight minutes of deleted scenes, a 13-minute 'making of' featurette, and a series of five mini-featurettes (totaling about ten minutes) fill out the package.

Gifted has moments of real warmth and humor, mostly thanks to efforts of Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace. It also has a bit of welcome bite, thanks to Lindsay Duncan. At 100 minutes it doesn't wear out its welcome, but third-act cheesiness might leave viewers rolling their eyes.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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