Gifted is the very definition of a tear jerker – its every line is meant to either enhance the tears that are to come or layer on the tears once they’ve arrived. Take a late in the movie scene where Chris Evans’ heroic and damaged uncle character must save (in order of importance) 1) his niece, 2) his one eyed cat, who is literal seconds from being put down 3) two additional cats and 4) his own sense of self and sanity. Everything in the movie is building towards giving this moment the maximum amount of pathos.
And it mostly works! Chris Evans is winning. Octavia Spencer is a national treasure. McKenna Grace is adorable without being cloying! Lindsay Duncan brings a surprising amount of nuance to a thankless role! I cried, and then cried some more and then ran home and hugged my rescue cats and told them how grateful they should be for me.
But the movie is afraid to be too much anything – and it keeps it from really being something.
Most of the movie is about a custody battle between Chris Evans’ underachieving uncle, Frank Adler, and his controlling mother (Duncan) over the precocious math prodigy Mary (played by McKenna Grace). Mary has been living with Frank since her mom committed suicide (a suicide that Frank blames on his mother), but once she’s found out as a true math prodigy, her grandmother finds her and steps in. The movie then is a series of adorable but hard scenes between Evans and Mary, an under-baked relationship between Evans and an underused Jenny Slate, and a series of court room scenes.
The problem is that the movie isn’t really willing to let there be any nuance to the custody argument. Frank may not be fulfilling his potential, but he’s hardly a negligent parent. And while they aren’t living in the lap of luxury, the movie isn’t willing to make their home ACTUALLY dangerous. So that means that we are faced with a custody battle that seems incredibly straight forward – and the movie acts like it’s a lot more ambiguous. Frank’s mother’s argument basically amounts to, “Your poor, I’m not, therefore I win.” They don’t even lean into the prodigy thing hard enough to let us actually second guess Frank’s parenting decisions.
Which is to say nothing about the (spoiler alert) eventual custody solution – an unnecessarily painful and terrible “compromise” that I truly cant fathom a judge agreeing to that is only made stupider by the fact that the movie never actually lets us believe that Frank might be an unfit parent. By the time it piles on the would-be cat murdering and a conspiracy to teach Mary math, the deck’s been weighted so heavily that there’s no real catharsis to an ending that seems pre-destined.
Overall, Gifted is a decent movie, an enjoyable walk through Chris Evans’ star power, and worth it just for the adorable one eyed cat. But, unlike its pint sized protagonist, it escapes being anything extraordinary due to its fear of trying anything of substance.