Is it possible to fit more tropes into a family drama than you’ll find in Gifted? Maybe, but it’s awfully hard to imagine. This is a film that features an uncle-turned-loving-single-dad, a precocious blonde first-grader, a teacher interested in the well-being of both the kid AND the uncle, an emotionally-invested neighbor, a custody battle complete with a courtroom scene out of A Few Good Men, a lovable one-eyed cat named Fred, and even a (pretty good!) joke about Congress.
But the thing about tropes is that they’re tropes for a reason. If you get the formula right and have enough charm and chemistry, many audiences don’t mind predictability, whether you’re talking about a superhero movie, a rom-com, or a whodunnit mystery. There’s no question of where Gifted is going to end up when the credits roll, but it has exactly the right balance of charisma, wit, and emotional manipulation to ensure that fans of this particular style will have a lovely time getting there.
Directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spiderman), the key to Gifted’s success is the cast, which has so much charm it seems like some kind of hazard to let them all hang out in one movie. The main character is Frank, played by Chris Evans because apparently there are still some people who need to be sold on Evans as the dreamy yet conflicted type. Frank has been living in Florida and taking care of his late sister’s daughter, Mary, since she was a baby. Mary is now 7-years-old and a super genius – something of a family trait – and she’s played by McKenna Grace with exactly the number of missing teeth and pouty expressions to convey both the “gifted” and the “child” parts of being a gifted child. Bonnie, the hardworking teacher who cares too much, is played by the incomparable Jenny Slate, and Octavia Spencer rounds out the good guys as Roberta, Frank’s next-door neighbor and closest friend.
The main villain in Gifted is Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother, who wants to take Mary away from Frank, Florida, and Fred the cat so that her intellectual gifts can be fostered both for Mary’s benefit and for the sake of humanity. Oh, and she’s British because of course she is.
I use the term “villain” loosely, since there are moments in the film where Evelyn is sympathetic. There are also moments when Frank seems slightly flawed. There’s even a nice moment or two when the pair seem to be getting along pretty well. The formula for this kind of movie does leave some room for nuance: things aren’t completely black and white, just sort of ivory and very, very dark grey.
There’s enough meat on the bones of the core conflict here that this actually could have been a more complex story. Frank is doing what he thinks his sister would have wanted by keeping Mary in a regular school so she can “be a kid,” despite her advanced intellect. Evelyn is working through some of her own baggage both as a mathematician and as a mother, but she makes some good points about keeping Mary engaged and learning. But in the end, writer Tom Flynn has stacked the deck against Evelyn, and she only gets the slightest glimmers of empathy and pathos because she does things like regularly referring to Mary as “the child.” Frank, our damaged but obviously loving true parent, gets all of the scenes that include playing on the beach, bonding during the sunset, cuddling on the couch, and – in one scene that’s custom-engineered to make audiences cock their heads to the side and say “awwww” – celebrating in a hospital.
All this is fine. No one buying a ticket wants to be conflicted at the end of a movie like this one. Gifted is high on charm and drama, and it has enough substance and math to keep it from feeling too soapy or shallow. It’s a sweet, feel-good flick about love and family and a one-eyed cat. No more, no less.