'Gifted': Film Review

You'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll feel the emotional strings being pulled.

Chris Evans stars in Marc Webb's comedy-drama about a man fighting to maintain custody of his 7-year-old niece.

A schoolteacher’s amazed discovery of an apparently genius child; a custody battle bitterly dividing family members; a single father becoming romantically involved with his little girl’s elementary school teacher. Those are among the familiar, or, to put it less charitably, cliched elements of Marc Webb’s Gifted. But despite its recycled tropes, the comedy-drama manages to be both funny and moving even if its emotional manipulations are fully apparent.

Chris Evans, taking a break from saving the world as Captain America, plays Frank, the sort of gruff, stubble-cheeked loner who obviously has a heart of gold. Working as a boat repairman in a Florida coastal town, he shares a modest home with his 7-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace), the daughter of his sister, who committed suicide when Mary was just six months old.

Mary, we soon learn, is a child prodigy, having inherited her mother’s brilliance for mathematics. So she’s understandably frustrated upon being asked to perform simple addition in her first-grade class. When kindly teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) discovers her pupil’s extraordinary abilities, she brings them to the attention of the school’s principal (Elizabeth Marvel), who promptly offers Frank the opportunity to place Mary in a school for gifted children, with a full scholarship.

Frank turns down the offer, explaining that he wants Mary to lead a normal little girl’s life unlike her mother, who was driven by her and Frank’s wealthy mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) to cultivate her math skills whatever the emotional cost. When Evelyn, with whom Frank has long been estranged, suddenly shows up out of the blue, she takes Frank to court to fight for custody of the little girl she recognizes as another prodigy. Meanwhile, Frank’s neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who serves as a mother figure to Mary, watches with concern from the sidelines.

The screenplay by Tom Flynn — whose only previous theatrical credit is the little-seen Watch It (1993) — features generous doses of humor that keep the proceedings from becoming too maudlin. And Webb, making a welcome return to indie films after his unfortunate reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, handles the blend of comedy and drama as effectively as he did in his acclaimed debut, (500) Days of Summer. But he’s not entirely able to overcome the story’s cloying aspects, including, believe it or not, a last-minute rescue from euthanasia of the family pet, which, in keeping with the film’s labored quirkiness, is a one-eyed cat.

More than a few scenes generate eye-rolling, including Frank taking Mary to a hospital waiting room so she can learn a life lesson by watching the delighted reactions of relatives receiving news about a baby’s birth. When Frank and schoolteacher Bonnie engage in a drunken flirtation but solemnly agree that it won’t lead to anything more, it comes as little surprise that the next shot depicts them giddily falling into bed together. Webb is even shameless enough to include a Cat Stevens song on the soundtrack.

None of that, however, will prevent you from succumbing to the film’s heartstring pulling, such as the wrenching scene in which Mary becomes hysterical when Frank is forced to leave her with foster parents. The gifted 10-year-old actress, who has already amassed a lengthy list of film and television credits, delivers a superb performance here that bodes well for her future. She handles her character’s wide-ranging emotional demands with consummate skill; perhaps her best moment is Mary’s deadpan reaction upon discovering her half-naked teacher in her home.

All of the performances are terrific, even if Spencer’s no-nonsense, voice-of-reason shtick threatens to become tiresome. Evans underplays to fine effect as the emotionally conflicted Frank; Slate is winsomely appealing as the teacher who finds herself drawn to her student’s hunky guardian; and Duncan displays a droll, deadpan humor that makes the grandmother surprisingly sympathetic.

Production companies: FilmNation Entertainment, Grade A Entertainment
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Michael Kendall Kaplan, John M. Jackson, Glenn Plummer, John Finn, Elizabeth Marvel
Director: Marc Webb
Screenwriter: Tom Flynn
Producers: Karen Lunder, Andy Cohen
Executive producers: Glen Basner, Ben Browning, Molly Allen
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Laura Fox
Costume designer: Abby O'Sullivan
Music: Rob Simonsen
Editor: Bill Pankow

Rated PG-13, 101 minutes