It’s a good thing Chris Evans didn’t follow W. C. Fields’ famous advice for actors: “Never work with children or animals.” Otherwise, Evans might have turned down the lead role in Gifted, a low-key but moving tale about love, family, genius, childhood, and the struggle to reconcile all of the above. Yes, Evans is required to spend much of his onscreen time with a spunky 7-year-old girl and a mellow one-eyed cat, but the good news is that Gifted gives the Captain America star one of his best, most persuasive roles as a normal human being.
Directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), from an original script by Tom Flynn, the movie takes place in a small town on the Florida coast. Evans stars as Frank Adler, a single, self-employed boat repairman raising his little niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace), the daughter of his late sister. They live in a cottage they rent from their friend and landlady, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), along with their orange cat, Fred. As the story begins, Frank is getting the reluctant Mary ready for her first day of second grade—which is also her very first day in a public school.
The daughter and granddaughter of math geniuses, Mary is herself a mathematics prodigy who has so far been home-schooled. But Frank is determined to give her as normal a childhood as possible, so he insists that she go to school, if only to learn how to interact with other kids.
But it doesn’t take long for Mary to stand out among her peers. Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), egged on by her principal, tells Frank they want to enroll her in a nearby school for gifted children, but Frank is adamant; he doesn’t want Mary put in a “special school for different kids.” Her brain power is one thing, but he also wants her to have a chance to develop into “a decent human being.”
The plot thickens with the arrival of Frank’s mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), the grandmother Mary has never met. Once a math whiz herself who gave up the rarefied world of mathematical problem-solving to marry and have children, Evelyn has shown little interest in Mary—until the girl’s talents are made known. Now, Evelyn, a wealthy, patrician Boston Brahmin, weighs in on the side of sending Mary to a special school. When Frank continues to refuse, she takes her son to court in a nasty custody battle.
Acting in counterbalance to the mother-vs.-son showdown is the fate of Mary’s mother, Frank’s sister, another math genius raised to follow in Evelyn’s footsteps. This subplot is introduced early on, when Bonnie googles Frank to learn his history, and continues throughout the story in a series of well-timed revelations. (Information-gathering is a big part of the story; there are so many onscreen Google searches, you’d think the company financed the movie.)
But what elevates the movie far above the standard courtroom drama is the tender relationship between Frank and little Mary. This is the heart of the movie, not an afterthought, and the filmmakers take all the time they need to get it exactly right. Mary can be sassy and disdainful, and their scenes together are sometimes contentious, but their affection for each other is genuine, and good-humored. When they collect Fred the cat and go for a spin on one of the boats Frank is repairing, or stroll along the beach at sunset, deep in conversation, while Mary climbs all over Frank like a jungle gym, their bond is irresistible.
As Mary, Mckenna Grace manages the fine line between arrogance and vulnerability. There are only a couple of moments when her precocity feels forced, more the fault of the script than the skillful young actress, who quickly recovers her place in our hearts. Meanwhile, the serious story is handled with plenty of droll dialogue. (When Evelyn tells Frank that her current husband, an investment broker, is coping with midlife crisis by buying a ranch, she calls him “The man who shot Liberty Mutual.”)
Not just for math nerds, this movie’s human element makes for a winning formula.
*** (out of four)
With Chris Evans Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, and Octavia Spencer. Written by Tom Flynn. Directed by Marc Webb. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.