Movies about female math prodigies are few and far between in Hollywood – standing at a whiteboard writing numbers is not in itself a pulse racing activity, regardless of gender. But now in just four months, we have “Hidden Figures,” about an African-American girl who wound up, after getting a scholarship to a school for the gifted, becoming a key member of the NASA space team in the sixties. Now Gifted,” starring Chris Evans as the guardian of a young math genius (Mckenna Grace) arrives in theaters, ready and more than willing to jerk heartstrings and trigger tear ducts.
“Gifted,” resembles “Little Man Tate,” a nineties movie with Jodie Foster playing a blue-collar single mom of a young genius (Adam Hann-Byrd), and also “I Am Sam,” a film about a mentally-challenged single father (Sean Penn) suddenly having to deal with the fact that his bright daughter is advancing past him in mental age, which results in a nasty custody battle. In “Gifted,” Chris’s IQ is adequate, if not superior, however, his problem is that he is living from paycheck to paycheck fixing boats and does not even have health insurance. So far this arrangement seems to have not held Mckenna, who appears to be a healthy inquisitive girl, back. However, at the film’s start when Chris decides to mainstream Mckenna into the public elementary school, it’s soon apparent to her teacher (Jenny Slate) that she’s highly gifted, and the principal informs him that she can arrange for a full scholarship to a better school for his daughter. Obviously, if a child is capable of doing math at the college level and beyond, jumping her a grade won’t solve anything.
Chris is dead-set against it because, as we learn, he’s Mckenna’s uncle, who adopted her (sort of) after her mom committed suicide when she was a baby. He wants her to grow up to be a well-adjusted human being first, but then his mother (Lindsay Duncan) pops up – she hasn’t seen him in years and has only recently managed to track him down – and she has a whole other set of plans for her granddaughter. As Lindsay has been the driving force for Mckenna’s mother’s high level mathematic research until her death, she is keen on assuming guardianship of Mckenna and providing her with an intellectually-challenging, well-to-do Boston upbringing. Surprisingly enough, neither Chris nor Mckenna is up for this, so enter lawyers, a therapist and the possibility of a foster family. (Don’t even get me started on the subplot with the one-eyed cat.)
This is where the movie goes off the rails logic-wise. Because “Gifted” is one of those films that sets up the main conflict in either/or terms, when the resolution arrives (in the form of both parties learning that it’s best to compromise!), it’s not a mystery why only the judge brings this up during the movie and then only briefly. However, the viewer will likely be wondering why two reasonably mature people can’t collaborate already for the best interest of the child. Another plot hole (and a big one) is that while Chris wants his daughter to live a more normal kid’s life, he hasn’t bothered to enroll her in any extracurriculars. (Seriously? Have program fees at the local library, park or YMCA skyrocketed since I was young?) But this provides ample ammunition for Lindsay’s elitist lawyer to hammer Chris with during the courtroom scenes. (In addition, he makes his daughter sleep in a secondhand bed! There are palmetto bugs in their Florida home! The horror.) Luckily, the adults manage to work out an arrangement that makes all parties happy, though it takes a couple of hours and lots of tears being forcibly jerked from the viewers’ sockets. The cast, including Octavia Spencer as a sympathetic neighbor and Mckkenna’s only friend, does a good job. However, there is really nothing here to distinguish the movie from a TV one, plot-wise.