“Gifted” is a rare example of the mid-budget family dramas that used to populate movie theaters but are now hard to come by. It stars the king of cinematic spectacle, Captain America himself, Chris Evans.
Evans demonstrates his acting chops in this pleasant tale of a young prodigy and the uncle who encourages her to just be a kid. The story is an amalgamation of familiar story tropes and character types — the custodial courtroom drama, the precocious whiz-kid, the unconventional parent-child relationship. It executes all of these elements well, with wry sweetness throughout, thanks to director Marc Webb.
Evans plays Frank, and Mckenna Grace, already an industry vet at age 10, portrays his niece, Mary. They share a cheerfully relaxed existence in Tampa, Fla., replete with boat trips, a one-eyed cat named Fred and a beloved neighbor, Roberta (Octavia Spencer). When Frank sends Mary to school, Roberta throws a fit. She’s worried that Mary will be discovered and taken away.
Mary is a math genius, which the film presents as a genetic gift from her mother, Diane. After Diane’s demise, Frank has endeavored to give his niece a real childhood, with friends and public school and pets, something Diane was denied by their overbearing mother (Lindsay Duncan), projecting her own unrealized dreams on her progeny.
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The ensuing custody battle reveals how each character’s motivation comes from his desire to do things right the second time around, to finally solve the problem of correctly raising a genius. Mary is just happens to be incidental to all that.
The emotions are heartfelt and genuine, and Evans displays electric chemistry with every woman on screen. He’s playful with the scrappy, sarcastic Mary. He banters brittlely with his mother, while Roberta doles out the tough love, and sparks fly between Frank and Mary’s teacher, played by the winsome Jenny Slate.
Despite its relaxed charms, “Gifted” is hampered by the overwrought and unrealistic courtroom drama. The characters become entangled in impossible personal and ethical choices, and the script relies on last-minute Hail Marys to erase all those over-complications. It’s pulpy, melodramatic and drags down what initially seems to be an intellectual and empathetic exploration about how to nurture genius.
Elements of “Gifted” almost seem to exist in fantasy. The golden Florida setting, Evans’ good looks and Mary’s unique talents all seem too good to be true. In “Gifted,” the superhero with the extraordinary abilities happens to be a first-grader missing front teeth. She doesn’t even need a cape.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material. 1:41. Fayette, Hamburg.