Like Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting and Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate, Marc Webb’s Gifted reflects a thin, Hollywoodized vision of genius as an exceptional ability to solve complex calculus problems on a blackboard, usually while a stuffy professor looks on in stunned silence. In lieu of exploring the psychological and emotional effects of having a truly brilliant mind, these films treat genius as a mere narrative prop—specifically to create a dramatic tension between living a normal happy life on the one hand and fulfilling the potential of one’s extraordinary gifts on the other.
Gifted represents a particularly manipulative iteration of this dynamic. The genius here is a math prodigy, Mary (Mckenna Grace), who’s advanced to differential calculus by the age of seven. She’s being raised in colorfully working-class shabbiness by her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), a freelance boat mechanic who gave up his career as a philosophy professor to care for Mary after her mother’s suicide. Trouble starts when Frank’s mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), having learned of Mary’s great intellect, seeks to gain custody of her—despite no contact with Mary or Frank for the past six years—to mold her into the mathematics rock star that Mary’s own mother never quite became.
The custody battle essentially pits a gentle, loving guardian who’s taken care of Mary nearly her entire life, nurturing her gifts to such a degree that she’s able to correct an MIT professor on his miswritten problem, against a cold, exacting interloper who, the film heavily suggests, drove her own daughter to suicide. The film stacks the deck so thoroughly in Frank’s favor that when the custody battle results in a “compromise” that takes Mary away from him and places her in a snooty, upper-class foster home, it registers not as a poignantly difficult choice but as a maddeningly implausible plot contrivance. While Duncan does her best to bring some shading and nuance to her character, Tom Flynn’s screenplay paints her with such viciousness that it ultimately seems interested less in Mary’s intellectual cultivation than in setting us up for the Evelyn’s inevitable comeuppance.
Though the film ultimately loses sight of its emotional core, namely the relationship between Frank and Mary, Evans and Grace still manage to develop a surprisingly strong chemistry, the former’s soulful nonchalance nicely complementing the latter’s prickly deadpan precociousness. There’s an undercurrent of wounded melancholy in their relationship that Webb occasionally highlights, as in a gentle scene of the two discussing the existence of God, Mary climbing up Frank’s legs and shoulders, their figures silhouetted against the sunset. But such small moments are few and far between, crowded out by the screenplay’s plot machinations and emotional manipulations, which ultimately leave Gifted as airless and rigidly diagrammed as one of Mary’s math problems.