Good characters fail to revive recycled plot in 'Gifted'

Efforts by Evans, Grace betrayed by contrived ending

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/18/17 1:05am

 “Gifted” will be the third consecutive film that I’ve given a negative rating. I want to make it absolutely clear that I don’t enjoy that fact in the slightest.

Roger Ebert, the grandfather of film criticism and one of my key inspirations, wrote in his book, “Your Movie Sucks,” the following: “Some of these reviews were written in joyous zeal. Others with glee. Some in sorrow, some in anger and a precious few with venom, of which I have a closely guarded supply.”

I think this statement could apply to any reasonable film critic. Subpar films are subpar for a variety of reasons. Thus, they should and must be addressed in different ways.

Oddly, I find the films that frustrate me the most are not those which I write about with venom, but instead those I write about in sorrow. Because usually those are the films that have the potential to be great but squander it in some way, shape or form. “Gifted” is one of those.

Mary (Mckenna Grace) is a 7-year-old with genius-level intellect and the daughter of a woman who was also a genius yet sadly committed suicide due to pressures to live up to expectations. Frank (Chris Evans), Mary’s uncle, now acts as her guardian and wants to send her to a normal public school in the hopes that she will socialize and avoid the same fate as her mother. When Frank’s mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), learns of this, she ignites a custody battle for Mary with the intention of grooming her so that she can realize her full intellectual potential.

Marc Webb, the director, is perhaps best known at this point for helming the 2012 reboot “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel, both of which have been much maligned by fans of the webslinger.

I happen to like those films more than most, but even I acknowledge that they are riddled with flaws.

Webb isn’t, I don’t think, cut out for directing action set pieces for blockbusters — his talents clearly lie in intimate drama and character interactions. His films always work best when actors are just talking to each other because he seems to have an innate ability to facilitate on-screen chemistry. It is no surprise that “Gifted” soars when the actors take center stage.

I don’t think Evans could play “unlikeable” to save his life, but for this film that’s for the better. He’s understated and totally believable as a decent man haunted by sadness. I’m also convinced that Octavia Spencer can do no wrong — she, too, is excellent as Frank and Mary’s best friend, Roberta. That being said, the real scene stealer is Grace as the titular “gifted” girl.

Child actors and Hollywood films have a long history of not being good — or healthy — for each other. Thankfully, Grace is an exception. She elevates the film with a performance that is both charismatic and deeply moving.

Sadly, these characters all deserve a much better story. It’s not that we’ve been here and done this a couple times, it’s that we’ve been here and done this a couple dozen times.

Within the first few minutes, you could chart a road map of all the story beats you suspect the film will hit before it ends. Trust me, it will hit all of them.

The problem with this derivative quality is twofold. First, it results in a film that feels like it has been filtered through an alternate reality. Characters rarely act naturally because their actions are in service of recycled plot points instead of the other way around.

Second, because it falls back so readily on clichés, the film strips itself of any real thematic complexity.

It wants to ask a genuinely fascinating question: is it better for a child with genius intellect to fully develop her abilities at the cost of her own well-being, or is it better for her to live a normal life and thus deprive the world of all the amazing things she could have done?

Unfortunately, the screenplay is so simplistic that it invariably validates Frank’s point of view that Mary should live as a normal child, while painting Evelyn in a negative light.

I’m not saying that Frank isn’t right — because he probably is — but I can at least appreciate the basis for Evelyn’s perspective, and I wish the screenplay could as well.

These storytelling issues are only amplified by the problematic ending. It is a massive contrivance that leads to a totally unearned happily ever after, comparable to deus-ex-machina resolutions.

Certainly, I was invested enough in the characters that I wanted to see them happy, but that happiness feels cheapened when it’s the result of an eleventh-hour salvation.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on “Gifted.” All things considered, it’s harmless at best and mildly frustrating at worst.

But parents have a tendency to say to their children, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.” Truly terrible films make me angry, but mediocre films with potential, like “Gifted,” are even worse because they’re disappointing.

There is a wonderful film trying to escape the constraints of this one. It’s just a shame that it never quite succeeds.

Rating: 5/10

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