Gifted ***

A thought-provoking central question keeps us interested even as the story veers away from its strength.

Is it worth $10? Yes

The best movies – the ones that stick with you long after the credits roll – are often ones that pose thought-provoking questions to which there’s no easy answer. “Gifted” is such a movie, and with its quick wit and charm, it wins you over with earnestness in spite of its notable shortcomings.

Here’s the dilemma: Frank (Chris Evans) is the guardian of his seven year-old niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace). Frank’s sister/Mary’s mother made it known she wanted Frank to have Mary before she committed suicide (Mary’s father is not around). Mary is a math prodigy who is clearly too smart for her small Florida town’s public school, which is something her teacher (Jenny Slate) doesn’t have to tell Frank. Even Frank’s neighbor (Octavia Spencer) knows how smart Mary is. But when offered the opportunity to send Mary to a school for gifted children, Frank demurs, insisting Mary receive a “normal” upbringing.

Meanwhile, Frank’s mother/Mary’s grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) wants custody of Mary so she can send her to a special school near Boston. Evelyn believes catering to Mary’s brilliance will allow her to make the most of her intelligence and do something extraordinary.

There are other issues in play as well, but the central question is clear: What is best for Mary? An upbringing of “normality” with other kids her age, or a private school that will enhance her gifts? You could argue for either side, and director Marc Webb’s (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) film allows virtue to both points of view. An average viewer’s mind will be made up early on about what’s best for Mary, and as the film goes it may be swayed a bit, but the ending isn’t strong enough to get those who disagree to change their minds. It’s too pat and predictable for that, which is a shame given the intrigue of the central dilemma.

Screenwriter Tom Flynn’s script is at its best when it allows the main storyline – about a seven year-old math prodigy getting to know the world – to shine. Mary is a dynamic, fascinating girl, and just like it’s a shame that she’s caught in the middle of a custody hearing, it’s a shame that Webb and Flynn all but ignore the curiosities around her brilliance in favor of a stale, melodramatic legal battle. 

And yet, for all its infuriating moments and unnecessary deviations, it maintains a “just right” appeal that allows it to work. Oscar winner Spencer (“The Help”) may be wasted as the sassy neighbor next door – she’s so much better than what this role allows – but the rest of the performances are solid, particularly Grace as Mary, a character who could’ve been incredibly annoying but comes across as sweet and endearing.

“Gifted” plays it too safe to be genuinely memorable, and the frustrations it entails feel like pandering to Hollywood formula. However, it’s ultimately too much of a charmer to pass up.

Did you know?
Although it takes place in Florida, the film was shot in Georgia.

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