Review: Chris Evans raises child prodigy in family drama ‘Gifted’

WASHINGTON — “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) won Best Picture by exploring a single dad seeking custody of his young child, while “Good Will Hunting” (1997) won Best Screenplay by exploring a young math prodigy seeking self-worth.

“Gifted” plays out like the square root of both movies, resulting in a film that’s nowhere near as exemplary, but one that at least aspires to the better angels of both movies for an uplifting watch.

Set in Florida, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a single guy repairing boats and raising his child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace), who was orphaned by the suicide of her mathematician mother. While Frank and trusty neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) want Mary to be home-schooled, her teacher (Jenny Slate) and principal (Elizabeth Marvel) offer her a scholarship to an elite school for the gifted.

The plot thickens when Frank’s estranged math-whiz mother (Lindsay Duncan) pops back into their lives, viewing Mary as her second chance at solving a math problem that her deceased daughter worked on her entire life — a so-called Millennium Problem that no one has ever solved. The clash between Frank and Mary explodes into a custody battle over how best to raise this exceptional child.

As you might expect, young Mckenna Grace steals the show. You’ll recognize her as Rose in Netflix’s “Fuller House” or Young Emma Swan in ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” but “Gifted” is her true coming-out party to prove she can carry a movie. Her performance comes across wise beyond her years while maintaining a certain childhood innocence. The combo makes for undeniably adorable moments that are the closest thing to young Dakota Fanning adoring Denzel’s Creasy Bear in “Man on Fire” (2004).

This role of bruised uncle turned father-figure shows a different side to Evans after his repeat turns as Captain America (five and counting). Together, Evans and Grace find charming chemistry, from the opening breakfast scene with a symbolic bowl of Special K cereal, to a nighttime piggyback ride that becomes a deep debate on faith, shot in silhouette against an orange sunset a la Mufassa and Simba.

There are many such beautiful shots by director Marc Webb, often featuring picturesque Florida marinas. And yet, the strongest scene is a human moment on the school bus, as the camera pans over a bus seat to reveal a humorous prop, followed by a child’s POV that ends in an abrupt cut to black.

This scene’s peering camera is a credit to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Oscar nominee for “The Piano” (1993), while the cut-to-black belongs to film editor Bill Pankow, who worked with Brian DePalma on “Body Double” (1984), “The Untouchables” (1987), “Carlito’s Way” (1993) and others.

In such little human moments, it’s nice to see Webb take off the cape and return to earth after directing “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014). We’ve seen him do much more daring work in “500 Days of Summer” (2009), which featured split-screens of “expectations vs. reality” in a killer rom-com script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

In “Gifted,” the script belongs to screenwriter Tom Flynn, who’s been relatively off the map since delivering his debut feature “Watch It” (1993) and the TV movie “Second String” (2002). His “Gifted’ script made the 2014 Hollywood Black List of best unproduced screenplays, and you can certainly see why in some of the dialogue exchanges between Evans and Grace — particularly early in Act One.

The opening scene manages to weave in exposition of the characters’ back stories without feeling heavy-handed. There’s even one really well-placed, guaranteed laugh-out-loud line that’s perfectly set up with Mary’s school antics. Like the best jokes, you don’t know you’re being set up at the time until the giant punchline arrives and you find yourself giggling to yourself for the next 10 minutes.

We won’t spoil the joke here — but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s fantastic.

Oddly, the risk-taking energy drains from the script later in Act Two. As the custody battle heats up, the story beats become less intriguing precisely when they should be getting more exciting. There’s a forced hospital scene with cheesy, overbearing music, as well as an eye-rolling plot twist with a one-eyed cat that would make Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” screenwriting book meow in disapproval.

Perhaps most disappointing are the underdeveloped supporting female characters. There’s certainly flirtatious chemistry between Evans and Slate — the couple just ended a real-life romance — but the parent-teacher romantic involvement borders on cliché. Similarly, Spencer’s reliably spunky neighbor Roberta disappears for large stretches of the movie, which is a crying shame. We saw her kick butt with Evans in the sci-fi action gem “Snowpiercer” (2014), so we wish she was given more to do here.

By the end, you’ll feel conflicted as to “the head vs. the heart.” Your head will recognize the film as formulaic, manipulative, even schmaltzy in its attempt to tug at our heartstrings, while your heart will fall for the characters whose well-being you’ll genuinely care about by the time the end credits roll.

To put it another way, “Gifted” isn’t narratively risky, visually groundbreaking, nor intellectually challenging. Instead, it’s decent, in both senses of the word: in quality and in morality. It carries a vital message: that we need to teach our kids to be well-rounded, allowing them to pursue their inherent gifts, but not at the expense of being a normal kid who can relate socially with the world.


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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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