Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gifted: A thoughtful cinematic present

Gifted (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for dramatic intensity and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

Stage parents aren’t confined to Broadway theaters.

Indeed, they’re cropping up everywhere these days: from AYSO fields to reality TV shows — Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson’s parents really should be jailed, for child abuse — and from Suzuki music institutions to public school “gifted child” programs stalked by hyper-obsessive mothers and fathers.

When the obsessive/possessive Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) meets granddaughter Mary
(McKenna Grace) for the first time, she immediately tries to bribe the little girl with a
laptop computer: a gesture that her son Frank (Chris Evans), Mary's uncle and guardian,
finds all too familiar.
Somehow, in far too many cases, the child becomes either a commodity, a cash cow, or the instrument by which the parents live out their unfulfilled dreams. Either way, a tragedy.

All of which makes Tom Flynn’s charming, astute and frequently heartbreaking original script for Gifted quite well-timed. It feels authentic, with the perceptive savvy of somebody who has Been There. Indeed, he acknowledges — in the film’s press notes — growing up with a sister who was “the most unassuming, ridiculously smart person you’ve ever met. When she was 5, everyone in the family was afraid of her, she was so determined.”

Director Marc Webb must’ve been on the same wavelength, because he has coaxed an extraordinary performance from young Mckenna Grace.

We meet 7-year-old Mary Adler (Grace) on the opening day of first grade, as she reluctantly boards a bus after considerable coaxing by Frank (Chris Evans). He’s not her father, as we soon discover, but her uncle; they live modestly in a tiny community along the Florida coast, where he repairs boats for a living. They share their home with a one-eyed, orange-and-white cat named Fred.

Best. Movie. Cat. In. Years. (Just sayin’.)

Mary is no ordinary child, which becomes apparent to teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), during a math segment tailored for children accustomed to the basics of 3 plus 3.

No big deal, Frank hastily insists, when Bonnie later asks him about Mary’s ability to multiply large numbers in her head. It’s a trick; she uses the Trachtenberg System.

But Mary’s precocious nature — her best friend, aside from Frank, is their landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer) — also comes to the attention of the snooty school principal, Ms. Davis (Elizabeth Marvel). Annoyed by Frank’s unexpected insistence that Mary remain in this school, as opposed to being transferred to a high-profile academic institution that’ll “better suit her gifts,” Ms. Davis digs into their past.

Which is how, a few days later, Frank and Mary return home to find the grandmother she’s never met, waiting at their door. This is Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), Frank’s mother, a Boston blue-blood and one-time math savant herself, who gave up potential academic fame when she married and had children. Two children: Frank and Mary’s mother, Diane. Both smart themselves, and in Diane’s case, super smart.

You’ll detect echoes of Good Will Hunting at this point, and Flynn deserves credit for doing his own homework. Under Evelyn’s strict regimen, Diane grew up obsessed with solving the Navier-Stokes equations, one of the math world’s as-yet unexplained Millennium Prize Problems. The consequences of this obsession, for Diane, were tragic.

Which is why, in the aftermath, Frank scooped up Mary and fled to a world, and a lifestyle, as far removed as possible from Evelyn and her Boston aristocracy. And, having no use for a grandchild whom she believed merely “distracted” her daughter, Evelyn was content to let them go.

But now, appallingly, Frank sees the same intense fire burning in his mother’s eyes, the same obsessive half-smile going no further than her lips.

Flynn constructs what follows in a thoroughly engaging manner, dividing his narrative between what Evelyn immediately escalates into a courtroom custody battle, and the cheerful, ordinary and mutually devoted home life that Frank and Mary have built together. The scenes shared by Evans and Grace are quite touching, but also persuasively credible: thoughtful chats, walks along the beach, amiable horseplay.

Grace has amazingly expressive features, sliding effortlessly from adult-like concentration to shattered, 7-year-old vulnerability. We itch to scoop her up and hug her, which of course is precisely Frank’s point; that’s the life he wants his niece to experience, and enjoy ... not some sterile regimen where she’ll be cooped up in a classroom all day, surrounded by anxious professors with old-guy beards.

Grace also knows how to deliver a well-timed riposte, and Flynn feeds her plenty of arch one-liners. By far the best is the punch line to the unison “Good morning Ms. Stevenson,” with which the kids welcome Bonnie each day. Watch the expression on Grace’s face, when she gets the opportunity for an ironic reprise of that greeting.

Evans deftly underplays Frank’s emotions in public, and we understand that he has long crafted a presence designed not to call attention to himself. At the same time, he’s warm and compassionate, easily approachable and sharply perceptive. I appreciate that the script doesn’t have Frank “blame” Bonnie for what happens, and that she instead becomes a sympathetic ally.

Slate has come a long way during the past few years, making good on the presence she established in TV shows such as House of Lies, Parks and Recreation and Married. She has gentle but precise comic timing, and she radiates kindness and sensitivity. She also has a playful dynamic with Evans, and their flirty banter is delightful.

Duncan has the most difficult role, and she skillfully navigates a razor’s edge between sympathetic and terrifying. Is Evelyn a monster? That answer may vary, from viewer to viewer, and moment to moment; can we wholly blame her for believing, in her heart, that Frank simply isn’t able — financially, emotionally — to provide the best possible life for Mary?

Duncan puts genuine regret into one quietly intimate scene, when she tells Frank, in all sincerity, that she doesn’t want to hurt him. We believe her, but we also wonder if it’s part of an act: a means to an end.

Spencer slides gracefully into her role as Best Friend And Confidant: the one person with whom Frank has shared his fears, and the one person who wholly agrees with his desire to keep Mary “normal.” But you don’t hire Spencer and then fail to exploit her talent for feisty loyalty, and Webb makes sure that the actress gets at least one foot-planted-firmly, Don’t-you-dare-go-there moment.

Smaller roles are equally well cast and played. Glenn Plummer is terrific as Frank’s attorney, Greg: a local fellow with enough savvy and wit to surprise the Boston-based legal shark who stands at Evelyn’s side. John M. Jackson is eminently believable as the judge attempting to extract justice from this mess; Michael Kendall Kaplan, without saying a word, lights up the screen as one of Mary’s classmates.

They’re all memorable, but the film gets its heart and soul from the scenes shared by Evans and Grace: parent/child encounters with the spirit, sensitivity, mutual devotion and respect that evoke fond memories of Gregory Peck and Mary Badham, in To Kill a Mockingbird (a comparison I don’t make lightly).

Webb displayed his own gift for convincing performances and intriguing relationship dynamics, in (500) Days of Summer, and his work here is no less impressive. A story such as this could slide into mawkish bathos, purple melodrama, cloying sentimentality or didactic sermonizing in the blink of an eye: potential pitfalls that Webb unerringly avoids.

This is a sweet, thoughtful and refreshingly wise little film, which is apt to be buried beneath the media tsunami fueling the concurrent release of The Fate of the Furious. Try to make time for this one, as well.

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