Captain America gets his heart on as Frank Adler, whose role as the begrudging caregiver for his 7-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace, Independence Day: Resurgence) after the unexpected death of Mary's brilliant but troubled mother when Mary was a baby. Captain America is, of course, Chris Evans and it's refreshing to see a mega-star like Evans step back into the indie world, or at least the Fox Searchlight version of the indie world, in this dram-com helmed by (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man director Marc Webb and scripted by Tom Flynn that picked up Heartland Film's Truly Moving Picture Award for its immensely moving and engaging portrayal of a child prodigy whose chances at anything resembling a normal childhood are challenged when those around her begin to realize that she may very well have acquired the mathematical gifts possessed by her late mother.
The good news is that despite the fact that Gifted sounds an awful lot like your average Lifetime Network weeper, it's actually a surprisingly satisfying, emotionally honest and occasionally humorous flick that benefits greatly from a terrific cast and Webb's ability to weave authentic melodrama into the proceedings without going over the top.
Gifted kicks off with Frank, a low-key boat motor repairman, deciding that Mary would benefit from a little more socialization than she gets from homeschooling and sending her off to the local public school for first grade in the classroom of Ms. Stevenson (Jenny Slate,Obvious Child). It's not long before Ms. Stevenson and Principal Davis (Elizabeth Marvel) recognize Mary's gifts and recommend a more advanced educational setting for Mary, a recommendation resisted, for reasons both protective and somewhat self-serving, by Frank. When Mary's grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), a well meaning and wealthy woman, shows up on the scene after an extended absence and becomes convinced that Mary is following in her mother's footsteps, Gifted becomes the kind of film that you never really expected it to be.
Screenwriter Tom Flynn's only other film credit was 1993's Watch It, which he wrote and directed, though he also penned a 2002 TV movie called Second String. Gifted was on The Black List in 2014.
Refreshingly, Gifted doesn't portray its characters as all good or as all bad but rather as complex human beings whose motivations can't be so easily labeled. The relationships matter here, tremendously so, with Frank and Mary possessing a relaxed, light chemistry that at times plays out more like the two are siblings than adult/child. However, Evans gives an immensely winning performance as a believably average joe even though we've seen enough as Captain America that one can't help but give him a little bit of instant street cred as a good guy. The film dabbles with a light romance between Frank and Slate's Ms. Stevenson, an on-screen chemistry between the two being not particularly surprising as both Evans and Slate dated for awhile in real life before amicably parting ways.
While there's an adversarial dynamic between Frank and Lindsay Duncan's turn as the formidable Evelyn, Webb wisely doesn't allow it to go into hyperdrive with the proceeding legal and relational conflicts played out respectfully for the most part.
Kudos must be given, of course, to Mckenna Grace for a spirited, heartfelt performance as Mary, embodying the young girl with both the self-awareness of someone who understands she has a special gift yet also the innocence and wonder of a child who's not really able to fully integrate what it all means. It's a terrific performance for the relative newcomer who should continue to see big roles coming her way.
Recent Oscar winner Octavia Spencer tackles a supporting role ideally suited for her as Roberta, Frank's neighbor and a quiet protector for young Mary as she enters the public school system. It's the kind of role Spencer could do in her sleep, but you can feel her embrace of this story in her performance.
Gifted isn't a brilliant film, but films don't always need to be brilliant. It's a good film with flashes of greatness and such a warm and genuine heart that you'd have to be stone cold not to shed a tear or two along the way. While Webb adds a few gentle twists n' turns, for the most part Gifted is the film you expect it to be. It's brought so beautifully to life by its ensemble cast that you're absolutely not going to mind that for the most part you know exactly where it's going and where this is all going to end up.
Sometimes, you enter the movie theater just wanting a film to make you feel better and restore your faith in humanity. Gifted does all of this and more and, I'll dare say it, then next time you see Chris Evans as Captain America you'll get a little more warm-hearted thinking about his good-hearted and entertaining performance as Frank Adler.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic