It often seems that Hollywood filmmaking trends to the “more is more” philosophy: more special effects, more stars, more spectacle. Alternatively, there’s the micro budget “less is more” of the indie scene. Like Goldilocks, you might be looking for something not more or less, but “just right.” “Gifted” is a rare example of the kind of mid-budget family dramedies that used to populate movie theaters but are now hard to come by. It even stars the class president of cinematic spectacle, Captain America himself.
Chris Evans, putting down the star-emblazoned shield, demonstrates his chops beyond the “Avengers” universe in this exceedingly 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 odd couple, unconventional parent-child relationship. It executes all of these elements very well, with a distinct sense of wry sweetness throughout, thanks to director Marc Webb, known for “(500) Days of Summer.”
Evans anchors the film as Frank, opposite the preternaturally talented Mckenna Grace, already an industry vet at age 10, as his niece Mary. They share a cheerfully relaxed shaggy dog 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’s not a mutant, but a math genius, which the film presents as a genetic gift from her mother, Diane. After Diane’s unfortunate demise, Frank has taken it upon himself to give his niece a real childhood, with friends and public school and pets, something Diane was denied by their overbearing and brilliant mathematician mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), projecting her own unrealized dreams on her progeny.
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The ensuing custody battle reveals the ways in which each character’s motivations come from their own desires to do things right the second time around, to finally solve the problem of correctly raising a genius. Mary just happens to be incidental to all that.
The emotions are heartfelt and genuine, and Evans displays electric chemistry with every woman in his orbit on screen. He’s playful with the scrappy, sarcastic Mary, who has learned her sardonic attitude from her uncle. He engages with brittle banter with his mother, while Roberta doles out the tough love, and sparks fly between Frank and Mary’s teacher Bonnie, played by the winsome Jenny Slate.
Despite its relaxed charms, “Gifted” is hampered by a tendency toward the overwrought and unrealistic in the realm of the 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.
There are certain elements of “Gifted” that almost exist in fantasy — the golden-lit Florida setting, Evans’ Ken-doll good looks and Mary’s unique talents all seem way 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.
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Octavia Spencer, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate.
Director: Marc Webb.
Running time: 1:41.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material.