Octavia Spencer better be careful not to be typecast in child custody films! Two years ago, she portrayed the grandmother who seeks custody of her black grandchild who is being raised by her white grandfather (Kevin Kostner). Moreover, she may well be typecast as the protector of all math prodigies since her recent role in "Hidden Figures".


In "Gifted" she portrays the motherly neighbor of a guy named Frank Adler (Chris Evans) who is raising his mathematically gifted niece, Mary (McKenna Grace). Both films raise the question of nurture versus nature to attempt to draw viewers into the story.


Which is more important: the innate qualities of a person or their environment and experiences? It is a pretty old argument that we even saw debated in Eddie Murphy's "Trading Places" when Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche bet each other on the argument.

In this film, we learn that Frank's sister was also a math genius who, for some reason or other, committed suicide right after she dropped the infant Mary off at her brother's place to raise. At the time, Frank was apparently a gainfully employed psychology teacher.


Now he is a marine mechanic, repairing the boats and yachts in a coastal Florida town - far removed from the northeast privileged life he lived in Massachusetts. Up to this point, Frank was apparently home schooling Mary with the neighborly help of Roberta (Spencer) when he decides to enroll Mary in the local school - much to her protests.


Surprise, surprise... Mary is light-years ahead of the rest of the class able to solve complex equations while the other kids are trying to solve 2+2. Her ultra cute teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) naturally brings Mary's advance intelligence to the attention of the rest of the school, which in turn leaks it to Mary's estranged grandmother (Lindsey Duncan) who zooms down to take custody of the child because she's economically positioned to provide a better learning environment for Mary.

You got it, she hires her high-priced lawyer (John Finn who has made a career out of playing a lawyer type) and Frank hires a local black attorney (Glenn Plummer) whom even Roberta jokes about. Thus begins part two of the film - Class War.


Director Marc Webb who has found measured success with "500 Days of Summer" and the Andrew Garfield generation of "The Amazing Spider-Man", goes for the schmaltz this time. He spends a great deal of time making sure that the emotional bond between Mary and Frank is in-you-face. Meanwhile he develops an awkward romance between Bonnie and Frank that is at best, inadequate.


The relationship between Roberta and Mary is purely fluff as Roberta serves no really purpose other than to babysit Mary whenever Frank has a tryst and needs some privacy. Octavia does a nice job, but the role is completely empty.


Well cast and pretty much the saving grace of the film is Duncan who does her impression of a prudish Shirley MacLaine or Meryl Streep. She's trouble before we even formally meet her. Evans and Grace do an adequate job fitting their roles, developing a believable chemistry. But what is lacking is more tension between Frank and Evelyn; there needed to be more dislike for each other to make the story come closer to working.


While Flynn does a decent job presenting the characters, he fails to present the cases so that the audience takes sides. This needed to be a film where the audience takes a side to be effective.


"Gifted" is a mediocre reenactment of the age old nuture/nature argument that has played-out better before. Even a fine cast can't bail it out of the been-there/done-that pile.   -- GEOFF BURTON