We don't get many movies like Gifted anymore, or should I say we get them but they tend to get ignored. It's the kind of simple family courtroom drama tackling an important issue that we used to see in theaters all of the time before they were drowned out by superhero movies. Could you imagine Kramer vs. Kramer coming out today? What about one of my favorites, Irreconcilable Differences? Would anybody even know? Ironically, it's a superhero director, Marc Webb, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans, who elevate Gifted above many of its most cloying aspects. But it's the spirited, warm-hearted performance by future star McKenna Grace that will leave viewers with a smile on their faces.
First off, it's so good to see Webb back doing small, clearly personal movies again after the failure of his Amazing Spider-Man reboot. He's back doing magical things with humor and drama just as in his breakout film, (500) Days of Summer, although you kind of wish he could have found room for one musical number. At least he's provided Evans the type of role he's frequently lamented don't get the same attention as his Marvel work. He plays Frank Adler, a boat repairman in Florida living in a shabby trailer park(to call it modest would be overdoing it) with his 7-year-old niece, Mary (Grace). Well, they also have a precious one-eyed cat. Mary has always been home schooled, it's allowed her and Frank to build their own language and rapport. They are incredibly close, which is why she is so upset when Frank decides to put her in public school. It doesn't go well.
His reasons are sound. Mary's well-meaning but overmatched teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) figures out that she's a child prodigy, and that she should be in more advanced schooling. But Frank is firmly against it, preferring Mary have a regular upbringing, which is exactly what her mother, a renowned mathematician who committed suicide, was deprived. This doesn't go over well with Mary's grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who takes steps to have her removed from Frank's care so her genius can be properly supervised by experts.
It's a classic nature vs. nurture case, and yes, it does end up in the courtroom where Mary's future can be hashed out by those who have her best interests at heart. One of the things I like best about the legal aspect of the story is that nobody is clearly portrayed as a villain. Our natural inclination is to side with Frank because we see the bond he shares with Mary. She trusts him implicitly, and despite his scruffy look and vagabond nature it's clear Mary has given his life a sense of purpose. So when that trust is broken between them, so too does it break our hearts to see. But Evelyn isn't necessarily wrong in wanting Mary to put all of her natural gifts to the best use possible, even if we disagree with her methods. And it should be said that Lindsay Duncan is incredibly compelling in the role, especially when she's on the stand making her case.
The screenplay by Tom Flynn surrounds the central issue with a metric ton of fluff that can be annoying to navigate. You can't escape many of the most manipulative aspects of the story; such as Octavia Spencer as their overly-maternal, no-guff neighbor Roberta, who you just know is going to have a song and dance scene with Mary at some point (and she does); to Frank and Bonnie's awkward flirtation that leads to them getting caught in the act by Mary. However, some scenes that would normally play as maudlin end up working quite well, like when Frank takes Mary to a hospital waiting room so she can watch family relatives celebrate a baby's birth. Is it corny? Sure it is. But it works because it shows how deeply Frank understands what Mary needs, and in that moment she needed to see the joy family can bring. It should go without saying this scene wouldn't have worked if it weren't for the chemistry between Evans and Grace. If you haven't seen the latter before, whether in Independence Day: Resurgence or in numerous TV roles, that will be changing soon. As Mary she brings the spark of childlike curiosity, a bit of sass, maturity, and the deep devotion a child of that age has for their parent. She's great and steals the entire movie away from the veteran cast.
Perhaps best of all, Gifted does provide answers. It has a perspective about what's best for Mary, but leaves just enough unanswered that we can still ponder whether that perspective is the right one. When all of the numbers are added up, Gifted amounts to an entertaining feel-good film that leaves viewers with plenty to consider.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5