At one point in Gifted, a principal demands to know what Chris Evans’ character hopes to accomplish by continuing to send his precocious math prodigy foster child, his niece, to a podunk public school, rather than the fancy academy where he’s just been offered a scholarship. Evans’ characters shrugs and says “Maybe I’m just trying to dumb her down enough to be a decent human being.”
It’s not Gifted‘s best line, but it’s an accurate description of what I felt like was happening to me when I watched it. It’s pure schmaltz, where the biggest conflict is over whether the wise-beyond-her-years little girl who also happens to be a super genius will have to live with her loving, preternaturally understanding handsome hunkle (Evans) or her slightly less loving, super rich math whiz grandmother (Lindsay Duncan). It totally worked on me, and I love it when that happens. It makes me feel like part of the human condition for a change, and not some snarkbot 3000 sent from space to terraform Earth with relentless dismissive wanking. This sucks, meep morp. Moreover, it makes me leave thinking “See? Movies aren’t that hard,” full of hope for the future.
Gifted is basically what a Nicholas Sparks movie might look like if Nicholas Sparks wasn’t such an asshole. It has most of the same ingredients: hunky guy (Frank Adler, played by Chris Evans), precocious child (Mary Adler, played by McKenna Grace), relatable love interest (Mary’s teacher Bonnie, played by Jenny Slate), wisdom-dispensin’ black neighbor (Octavia Spencer), and lots of sleepy, sun-drenched coastal Southern scenery, in this case Florida as shot by director Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man, (500) Days of Summer). There’s even a tragic past, a turning-down-a-scholarship-plot (you may not know Nicholas Sparks clichés as well as I do, but the dude is weirdly obsessed with people turning down obscure scholarships) and a one-eyed orange cat named Fred — whom the story wisely leans into. I’ll be honest, I loved Fred.
The difference is, the script by Tom Flynn, is actually clever when it means to be, and doesn’t cheat beyond the basic stretch of the no-stakes premise. If this was a Nicholas Sparks movie, Frank would’ve had to steal Bonnie away from an abusive husband before they’d been allowed to steam up the Spanish moss room, and Mary’s grandmother would’ve been some fire-breathing racist who wants to hire Mary out to a think tank to pay for her skin creams and sell Fred to a furrier. But Gifted smartly ditches the Blutos and Cruellas DeVille who show up in every Sparks movie, and even affords the movie’s ostensible villain (the rich, big city grandmother, who is allergic to cats) her basic humanity. Not to mention a few of the funny lines. When she and Frank discuss (amicably, despite being pitted against each other in a custody battle) her ex-husband, a finance guy who has quit his job and bought a ranch in Montana, she says she likes to call him “the man who shot Liberty Mutual.”
Whatever misguided impulse to gild the lily made Marc Webb ruin (500) Days Of Summer with that final montage sequence where Joseph Gordon-Levitt becomes an architect and meets a hottie named “Autumn” (ughhhh) is much more controlled here, such that we can allow ourselves to enjoy the simple pleasures of Chris Evans dispensing fatherly advice. Hunky single dad taking his child and cat to a sun-dappled beach? Don’t mind if I do.
Gifted always has a clever line ready to disarm you whenever the story starts to feel a little too manipulative. And it’s supremely manipulative, dealing almost entirely with the world’s most aspirational fake problem: How to do right by a child who’s wise beyond her years and has a “one in a billion” (they actually use those words) brain! Gifted‘s saving grace is that it traffics in myths we all already want to believe, while making them just credible enough that we’ll allow ourselves to be carried away. Poor, Mary! No one understands her because she’s too smart and caring!
Of course, we all like to imagine ourselves misunderstood geniuses beset by a cruel world of average-brained dickheads so it’s easy to identify. Gifted also plays the old Good Will Hunting trick of making every character exactly as quippy and articulate as we all wish we were, ready to dispense that perfect, fatherly understanding or kneecap a pompous jerk with a succinct sideways diss at any moment. It’s fantasy, but a nice one. Even the lawyers and the judge during the courtroom scenes are really good at their jobs — think Aaron Sorkin-esque competence porn but without the smugness. Aw, remember thinking grown ups would be good at stuff like this when you were a little kid?
It also helps, of course, that the entire cast is supremely adorable. Doe-eyed 10-year-old McKenna Grace actually sells us on being a glib 30-year-old trapped in a first grader’s body, and Jenny Slate’s is the voice I want telling me everything will be okay while I’m receiving my lethal injection. And Chris Evans, with his noble jaw, has the broad, plaid shirted shoulders I hope to lean on when my favorite team loses the big game. GRR, FOOTBALL! They’re cute, is what I’m saying. The movie is cute. Not every movie should be about adorable white people with sassy black friends and precocious children with cute pets and fake problems, but it’s fine that this one is, because it does it well.