Be wary of small-minded people with a modest amount of power. I’m paraphrasing, but that line from Gifted stayed with me. Maybe I had a visceral response to this casual warning about a school principal because it seemed relevant to current politics, or any politics. Maybe it was just because it was another well-written thought in this exceptional movie about a smart young girl and her battered uncle.
Few things are as they first seem in Gifted. The struggling boat repair man and father Frank (Chris Evans) is actually not the father but the uncle. And he carries big secrets around in his pickup truck as he tries to raise a child prodigy in a glorified trailer in Florida.
Way out of his superhero comfort zone Evans is wonderful to watch — as witty and muscular as Captain America, as distractingly handsome as Brando and Clooney. Hiding his deep sadness with a smirk, Evans’ performance might land him in nomination territory next fall.
He’s the all-American kind of guy in a place I call the real America when talking to foreign friends who think New York is this country. Frank is the sort of man who has a hard time shaving and a hard time crying, although he makes you cry with ease. You want to drink beer and go sailing with this guy. More importantly, you’d want him to raise your child if something were to happen to her mother.
Frank’s mother Evelyn (the superb British theater actress Lindsay Duncan) is scheming in her own, upperclass, very New England sort of way. Clashing with Evans’ character, Duncan and he bring out epic performances in each other. If this is a film about a typically dysfunctional — if unusually talented — family, the screenplay by Tom Flynn and the excellently paced directing by Marc Webb are anything but typical.
There is an americanness about Gifted. Witness the beat-up pickup truck and the ease of the interracial neighborly friendship between Frank and Roberta (another clear-eyed performance by Octavia Spencer, last seen as God in The Shack). As is true so often in modern-day America, despite the identity-politics-driven news we consume, race is never even mentioned. Frank and Roberta are simply good neighbors, getting together as they try to raise this lost child. Like I said: it’s a very American movie. The tense, drawn-out scenes in a random public school feel scarily real. The quiet courtroom drama in a small southern town brings to mind John Grisham in peak form. Then there’s the casual flirting and drinking in a lazy indoor-outdoor bar at the Florida coast.
I kept thinking: the real America, but not necessarily Trump’s America. Frank might have been a Bernie Sanders voter, for all we know. But Gifted carefully shows us the America portrayed in last year’s powerful Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is the country where they have always taken Trump seriously, not literally. On reporting trips to Oklahoma, Indiana, and Arizona, during family visits in Texas and Georgia I have always found what Gifted is made of: unending hospitality, grace in the face of hardship, intelligence, humor, and acceptance of the other. Gifted — finished before last fall’s elections — gives us a taste of what life is about in the vast space between the left coast and the northeast.
Far from the coastal bubbles, it is about family, the question of belonging, how to care for a one-eyed cat named Fred, mental illness, the joy of learning. Deep down it is about the hard questions surrounding the self-determination and empowerment of a brilliant young girl with such a temper that she beats up an older boy bullying her little classmate.
She is played by the excellent budding actress Mckenna Grace, who, when meeting press and admirers, cannot help but smile and smirk when she is off-screen. At just 10 years of age, this star (she shone last year in Mr. Church with Eddie Murphy) plays the prodigy called Mary. The character struggles with a one-in-a-billion math brain, inherited from her deceased mother. She questions everything except math formulas. She certainly questions unconditional love, and with reason.
Screenwriter Tom Flynn turns out to have perfect pitch. His scripts have been floating around Hollywood for years, but they rarely make it to the filming stage. Maybe Flynn had to leave Los Angeles for Florida, as he did, to find this story inspired by his own sister.
Thankfully, the script never tries to fix Mary. She doesn’t need fixing, which is what her guardian Frank knows. But in one breathtaking scene, he does help her see how deeply she is loved. It takes place in the waiting room of a hospital, just outside the delivery room: a sterile place where strangers anxiously await news about newborns they can’t wait to see. Sitting between Frank and neighbor Roberta, an awestruck Mary watches random relatives react to the news a new father brings: It’s a boy! We have a girl! These people embrace, cry, dance, and laugh. And that is exactly how we all felt when you were born, Frank tells Mary. Like I said, he will make you cry; everyone in my Los Angeles press screening did.
Elsewhere in the film Frank says he doesn’t know if God exists. No one knows, he tells Mary. But during that drawn-out moment in the hospital waiting room the film blossoms with a kind of heavenly love in the presence of new life. When Mary jumps up to celebrate newborn babies with strangers in blue gowns love jumps off the screen. We watch a girl realize that her birth changed lives — that she is loved.
Gifted is about wonderful, difficult, and real things; small things. So it makes us ponder big things. In the end, the self-important school principal with a modest amount of power can’t beat Frank’s crucial act of kindness to save Fred the one-eyed cat from euthanasia. Frank is far from flawless. But he parents instinctively. He parents well. The moral compass of a troubled, decent, unshaved man with a pickup truck will — should — beat the arrogant bureaucracy and the self-obsessed moneyed elite. It strikes me as an American message for this time.
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