Gifted is the story of Frank and his niece Mary. Mary is a math prodigy much like her deceased mother. Frank’s sister asked him to take care of Mary before she killed herself. Frank has done his best to raise Mary as his sister would have wanted and much differently than she herself was raised by their own mother. Instead of capitalizing on Mary’s genius, Frank has tried to provide Mary with a normal childhood. Well, as normal as possible with Frank’s sporadic employment. Mary’s best (and only) friend is their next door neighbor Roberta. Despite the fact that Roberta is old enough to be Mary’s mother, the two have a special connection.
When Frank decides to put Mary in public school, against Roberta’s advice, it is a surprisingly catalytic event. Though Mary has had no formal schooling it is clear she is more advanced than even her teacher. However, her social skills leave much to be desired. Against the recommendation of Mary’s principal and teacher, Frank declines to put her in a school for the gifted. He opts to leave her where he believes she will be allowed to have a normal childhood. However, this decision manages to reach the ears of his uptight, brilliant mother who wishes Mary to continue the work that her own daughter never completed. Thus a legal battle for custody of Mary ensues, with both Frank and his mother Evelyn believing they know what is best for Mary. But, who is right? And will anyone in this family come out a winner when Mary is the prize?
From the first time I watched the film trailer for Gifted I was intrigued by the story. As I suspected the plot is fairly original and not one of those that has been regurgitated by the Hollywood machine.
Gifted is not only plot driven, but also character and dialogue driven. This is something thing we see less of on screen these days. I crave this type of film, so it is good to see that Gifted highlights flawed but real characters and also realistic dialogue.
That being said, I didn’t connect as much emotionally as I expected with this movie. I can’t really pinpoint why. Mary is just a child dealing with the loss of her mother and the burden of her genius. But I had a hard time feeling much compassion for her. She is brittle, socially awkward and hard to like at times as she figures out how to balance being a child in an adult world.
Also, even though Frank pretty much sacrifices his entire life to become a surrogate father, he is not the image of a hero that I generally prefer. Perhaps, that is a good thing, because real life heroes don’t often match fictional ones.
Surprisingly, I found Frank’s mother Evelyn Adler to be one of the most fascinating characters in Gifted. Though she serves as the antagonist to Frank’s desire to honor his sister’s wishes, she is not the villain she initially appears to be. As the story unfolds we get glimpses behind her cold exterior. We begin to learn why it is so important to her that Mary be given all the benefits of a child prodigy. Her motives may be selfish, but she also appears to genuinely care for her granddaughter.
Another character I really loved is Mary’s friend and neighbor Roberta played by Octavia Spencer. Spencer has become one of my favorite actresses and generally her roles reflect a no-nonsense, take no guff attitude. Roberta is no exception and she is able to give Mary both the friendship and motherly love she is lacking.
The heart of the battle in this film is how to raise a child who is in fact gifted. One of the most piercing moments for me is when Frank explains why he wants to leave Mary in her public school which is unequipped to help her manage and develop her exceptional skills. He recognizes that he is refusing an amazing opportunity for Mary, but believes it is much more important for her to grow into a kind, loving girl, than a gifted one. The moment is so impactful because it is the opposite of prevailing wisdom in our society. And it is one which has left me pondering what type of person I want to be.
Even though I didn’t love Gifted as much as I expected to, it is still a film I recommend. The questions it raises and it’s realistic characters make it a memorable one.
Gifted is available on DVD and various streaming platforms including Google Play, Apple and Vudu.