Family is a sticky subject to tackle on film, inspiring a certain kind of love story. There’s baggage, there’s struggle, there are extenuating circumstances, but let’s not forget that there’s also hope. Gifted is a movie that does not apologize for the ugliness of family life—the losses we experience and the conflicts we face—while also celebrating that it’s possible for love to conquer all.
(500) Days of Summer-director Marc Webb presents these familial challenges with a thoughtful and dramatic story, written by Tom Flynn, about a single man, Frank Adler (Chris Evans of Captain America and Avengers fame), raising his young and feisty niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace), after her math genius mother commits suicide. Frank and Mary live an eccentric, simple life in Florida, far away from the expectations of prestige wielded by Frank’s own Boston-based mother, Evelyn (About Time‘s Lindsay Duncan). The crux of the movie lies in the fact that seven-year-old Mary is a prodigy, just like her late, troubled mother, posing two very complicated questions: Should Mary follow the high-pressured legacy Evelyn never saw her own daughter fulfill? Or, does Frank abide by his sister’s wishes for Mary to grow up like a normal kid?
Perhaps what is most surprising about Gifted is how the film’s cast, including Evans, Grace, Duncan, as well as Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Shack), blends so well together, representing a combination of real-life, well-intentioned characters that any audience can relate to. Slate plays Mary’s teacher, Bonnie, who takes notice of Mary’s academic brilliance, setting the plot in motion regarding the child’s potential. Slate also serves as an unlikely, but deservingly adorable romantic lead opposite Evans. As an onscreen duo, Slate and Evans are every bit symbolic of what happens when two real people, a do-gooder teacher and misunderstood laborer, get involved. The messy circumstance of their subplot is another way that the audience can root for Frank as we learn about the unfortunate events leading to the demise of his sister’s mental health and how Mary became his responsibility. After all, he is just a guy doing what he thinks is best.
Audiences and critics alike have justly applauded Spencer’s acting chops ever since her award-winning turn in 2011’s The Help and most recently for Hidden Figures. Spencer’s Roberta doubles as neighbor babysitter / guide to Frank and sole playmate to Mary, who doesn’t relate to her peers. However, Roberta is undeveloped, merely filling a formulaic, maternal void in Frank’s life, thus stilting Spencer’s performance. It’s a shame to see such a renowned force like Spencer reduced to a shell of a character, utilizing the same tricks we already recognize her for—brassy but wise—in order to support Frank in their unconventional rapport.
Grace lights up the screen with every one of Mary’s giggles and scowls, balancing soulful nuance, vulnerability, and wit, all in the vein of talented child actresses during their early years, including Abigail Breslin, as well as Dakota and Elle Fanning. Evans, as Mary’s guardian, is stripped of his superhero persona, channeling gritty and wounded charm. The dynamic between uncle and niece drives the film’s success. Webb’s vision and Flynn’s words create an emotionally bracing custody battle, where Frank and his mother are at odds and digs they can’t take back stun the audience. Then, amid the ensuing legal chaos, Mary’s playful, one-eyed cat named Jack steals the scene and we’re left laughing at the shameless one-liners about living in Florida.
Overall, this film might not make headlines in a blockbuster sense, simply because the action star fandom an audience has for Evans could overpower the family-centric dramedy scheme that Gifted offers. Mckenna Grace is a name to remember, especially with over 40 credits to her IMDB page (including most recently, her high profile work on Designated Survivor as Kiefer Sutherland’s character’s daughter and the role of young Tonya Harding in an upcoming biopic about the troubled Olympian, I,Tonya, starring Margot Robbie). Gifted hits theaters on April 7th against heavy hitters like Smurfs: The Lost Village and Anne Hathaway in Colossal, which might not bode well for Gifted’s box-office reception; nonetheless and simply, if you like movies with heart, grab some tissues and go see this movie!