Marc Webb’s first return to indie after directing the two “Amazing Spider-Man” films is remarkable, and it’s also refreshing that Chris Evans does intimate indies like this in between his “Captain America” outings.
In “Gifted,” a sweet family dynamic is explored as a single man Frank Adler (Evans) is raising his niece in a small Florida town. His niece, seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) isn’t like other children at all; she’s a child prodigy in mathematics. She’s been homeschooled the first part of her life after her mother died, and now Frank is realizing she doesn’t have great social skills and puts her in first grade in public school.
Frank’s drawn into a custody battle with his estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), because once Evelyn learns that Mary’s a prodigy – she wants to bring her into a life dedicated to mathematics.
The custody battle drives the plot and it’s interesting because there’s merit to both arguments. Evelyn doesn’t want Mary’s potential to be wasted, and Frank’s fighting to give Mary a normal childhood even though she’s an extraordinary little girl. Lindsay Duncan is great as Frank’s mom; the character’s hard but she has good moments in the role, and even though she’s the opposition of the custody battle, it’s so well-written that there’s still some sympathy for the character. It’s intriguing seeing the backstory of her relationships with her children.
As for the main cast, the chemistry between Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace is magical. You wholly believe they’re uncle and niece and the development of their relationship and characters is great. Their fights tug at the right heartstrings and the film’s a true tear-jerker. The chemistry also helps a predictable story become one of 2017’s most charming films.
Mckenna Grace is also a great young actress, and since she lost her two front teeth before filming, she’s
that much cuter. She’s funny and captures the sass and attitude in the role. It’s funny when she’s sassy not because she’s adorable, but that the lines are so good and she has so much energy that it’s so much fun watching her. She’s just like a real kid having fun, and like her character, just trying to be a kid. She also has a convincing emotional range.
The character makes math fun because she’s so passionate about it and when Frank tries to close her homework so she plays outside, she just opens another book. Her hunger to learn is almost contagious.
Chris Evans is also fantastic. The character’s strong because he’s vulnerable and realistic, since he doesn’t know what he’s doing but he’s trying his best. He wants what’s best for Mary, and he’s trying to raise Mary how he thinks his sister would have wanted. He’s fighting for normalcy for her. I also loved how he doesn’t try to influence her when forming opinions and wants her to choose things for herself and grow her independence. He’s becoming a bit of a new superhero, fighting for his niece.
There’s a scene where Frank and Mary are silhouettes in front of a sunset on a Florida beach (well, it’s filmed in Georgia) and Frank is holding her hand and Mary’s walking up his legs. They’re having a conversation that shows that Frank doesn’t want to influence her beliefs in anything. Their chemistry and Marc Webb’s direction make this little charming scene because it’s so intimately done and so human. It’s engaging and unique, and it works so well because their relationship feels so convincing.
It’s also little scenes like this and scenes like Mary singing with neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) that make this so damn charming and memorable. The movie’s a drama and while it’s sappy, the sentiments ring true and you get lost in everything the characters go through.
Some of the film’s heartbreaking and there’s a lot of funny material and some big laughs. It’s one of those films that I can say made me laugh and cry, and it has a surprising ability to do both at the same time. This is just such an engaging custody battle and a story about trying to be a good parent and doing what’s best for your kid.
The supporting cast’s also memorable. Jenny Slate (“Zootopia”) is Mary’s teacher Bonnie and she’s part of some funny moments. Octavia Spencer is good friends with Frank and Mary and their landlady. She has a lot of big laughs, too, and she’s a delight to watch. There’s also a one-eyed cat named Fred that’s a scene-stealer.
The story’s sometimes predictable but it has a few surprises, and the performances and engaging story it tells make it a film not to be missed – even if math bores the hell out of you.
– by Daniel Prinn