Chris Evans has made quite a name for himself as Captain America and other brash, macho men. But in Gifted, Evans plays Frank Adler, the uncle of a very intelligent seven-year-old, in Fox Searchlight’s drama about family, intelligence, and finding one’s own way.
Frank raises Mary (McKenna Grace), the daughter of his deceased sister, in his own way, in the quiet of a small town in central Florida. When he sends Mary off to her first day of school, her intelligence (especially mathematically) is revealed, and a chain of events unfolds that threaten to rip Frank and Mary apart. Unfortunately, for Frank, his main opponent to his plan for Mary’s childhood is his own mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan).
Fully convinced that Mary’s powers (like her daughter’s) should be used to achieve great things, Evelyn unleashes her financial resources on Frank, dragging him into court and disrupting his quiet life. Mary is the pawn in Evelyn’s desire for recognition intellectually, a vicarious need born of her own derailed academic pursuit. But Mary has Frank, and a pair of women in her corner.
In Gifted, we find another strong Octavia Spencer role in the person of Frank’s landlord, Roberta Taylor, as she provides the spunk and humor that the story needs. Romantically, Jenny Slate plays Mary’s first teacher, Bonnie Stevenson, who ultimately falls for Frank’s charm and intelligence. These three prove to be the advocates that Mary needs in her pursuit of childhood – and education.
While the story revolves around Mary, the development of the characters is multi-faceted. Mary must learn how to be a child, but Frank must learn how to be a parent. Both of them long to keep their relationship strong, but the more nuanced hardship of Frank speaks volumes to parenthood/adulthood. How can he allow Mary to be a kid and put her in a position to stretch her mind and intelligence? How can he protect her and learn how to fail at the same time? This is the heart of the film.
In one particularly interesting scene to me – as a pastor and a parent – Mary asks questions about God that certainly seem appropriate to her age. With similarly aged children, I have found myself answering, ‘Is God real? Was Jesus God? Will I see so-and-so in heaven?’ Frank’s response speaks volumes to how he perceives himself and his de facto daughter: “Use your head but don’t be afraid to believe in things either. I have an opinion but I don’t want to tell you what to think. One way or another, we all end up back together in the end. Isn’t that what you really want to know?”
In the end, each character, and each of us, must come to our own understanding of things, mathematically, spiritually, truthfully, because those are the answers we ourselves have to live with.