By Jeff Boudreaux
I’m going to get right to the point – “Gifted” is a delightful motion picture that tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh, and has some knockout performances to boot. Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer,” “The Amazing Spiderman 1&2”) directs a screenplay by Tom Flynn that combines elements of “Little Man Tate,” “Good Will Hunting” and yes, even “Kramer vs. Kramer” for a story that is surprisingly original despite the various borrowed plot devices!
Chris Evans stars as Frank, a single man who is raising his late sister’s 7-year-old daughter, Mary (McKenna Grace), a child prodigy who just can’t seem to fit in at her elementary school grade-level. This is because she’s a mathematical genius (as was her mother before her), and scoffs at the curriculum presented by her teacher Miss Stevenson (Jenny Slate). When the school principal gets wind of Mary’s ability, and realizes that Frank is unwilling to admit Mary to a special school (he does have his reasons), she takes it upon herself to involve Frank’s estranged mother, the combative Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who wishes to obtain custody of her very special granddaughter.
Unfortunately, that would involve separating Mary from everyone she loves. There’s Mary’s kindhearted neighbor and best friend Roberta (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer), her beloved one-eyed cat (Evelyn is allergic, of course), but especially her devoted uncle, who’s in truth the only father she’s ever known. You see, Frank insists he’s not holding Mary back, rather he’s protecting her from a life that he thinks that his sister would not have wanted her child to endure. What’s truly best for the child, and who’s right in this matter? We shall find out, but not before we’re taken on an emotional roller coaster befitting someone of Mary’s ability.
Chris Evans excels in the change-of-pace role as Frank, a seemingly-simple man who fixes boats, yet we learn certain things about his past, of a different life pre-Mary, which only serves as a testament to his love and devotion to the welfare of his precious niece. Lindsay Duncan’s (“Birdman,” “Alice in Wonderland”) characterization of Evelyn proves a delicious foil to her own son. We see a proper woman with high standards, standards she wants to bestow upon her granddaughter (and standards which may have ultimately been the downfall of Mary’s mother). The oft-nominated Octavia Spencer gives one of her absolute best performances as Roberta, devoted friend and confidant to both Frank and Mary. I can say with all certainty that she is one of filmdom’s best actresses, period. Filmgoers may recognize young McKenna Grace from her roles on television series such as “The Young and the Restless” and “Designated Survivor.” Here, her character initially comes across as just a wee bit pretentious, but lest we forget, we’re talking about a 7-year-old who is bored by advanced calculus, so we can understand where she’s coming from when she laughs at being asked what 3 plus 3 is! Last but not least, Jenny Slate (“My Blind Brother,” “The Secret Life of Pets”) is funny and charming as Bonnie, Mary’s well-intentioned teacher who befriends Frank.
While “Gifted” captivates, there are a few moments of narrative enlightenment which I felt were unnecessarily positioned for shock rather than pure drama. Otherwise, this was an exemplary independently-produced film that may not reap the box-office receipts it so truly deserves. Nevertheless, for entertainment value this substantial, little film is worth its weight in gold.
*** (three-out-of-four stars)