“Gifted” is the story of a fractured family. Like a hybrid of “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Little Man Tate” (with a taste of “Good Will Hunting” thrown in), it bases a family custody story around a child prodigy.
Chris Evans leaves his Captain America mask at Avenger’s HQ to play Frank Adler, a single man trying to give his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) a normal life in a Florida coastal town. As the seven-year-old’s guardian, he enrols the high-spirited girl in public school. “Please don’t make me go,” she says. “No more argument, we’ve discussed this ad nauseam,” he replies. “What’s ad nauseam?” “You don’t know? Looks like someone need school.”
In school she outpaces all her classmates academically, particularly in mathematics. When her teacher (Jenny Slate) tries to stump her, asking what 57 multiplied by 135 is, the little girl pauses and says, “7695” off the top of her head. Then goes on to supply the square root. “87.7 plus change.” It is clear she is gifted, but her abilities raise concerns for Frank. “I promised my sister I’d give Mary a normal life,” he says. “She has to be here,” and not in the special school her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) wants to place her in. “You are denying her potential.” Cue the custody battle.
“Gifted” doesn’t exactly reinvent the family drama wheel. Frank is the “quiet damaged hot guy,” Mary the precocious kid with a snappy line and many a heart tugging moments. We’ve seen all that before but it’s the chemistry between Evans and Grace that elevates the material. The poignancy of their relationship cuts through the film’s clichés, taking some of the saccharin edge off the story.
Evans is a superhero of a different sort in “Gifted.” As the protective uncle of a brilliant niece he is a fully engaged father figure. He’s a man who saw his sister’s brilliance turn her life upside down and does everything he can to avoid the same fate for his niece. It’s a nice, sensitive performance that provides a nice break from his Avengers’ work.
Grace offers up a nicely balanced blend of brains and childhood behaviour. She’s the smartest person in the room, but she’s also a child, prone to temper tantrums and confusion. Still she is capable of great insight. Why does she want to stay with Frank? “He wanted me before I was smart.”
The movie works best when it focuses on the surrogate dad and niece. There is nice supporting work from Jenny Slate as Mary’s teacher, Octavia Spencer (in her second film about gifted mathematicians) as the girl’s much older best friend and Duncan as the stern Evelyn do solid work, but this is a basically a two hander.
“Gifted” is a warm and funny family drama, a film so well cast it overcomes its conventional idea.