When the moment comes for Chris Evans to put down Captain America’s shield, we’ll be sorry to see the back of one of the best big screen superhero portrayals ever. But Marvel’s loss will be cinema’s gain, going by the interesting projects he’s chosen between his more red, white and blue escapades. In Gifted, he’s put whatever blockbuster clout he may have behind a project that deserves it, and the result is one of the year’s nicest surprises.
Evans plays Frank Adler, a boat mechanic who lives in Florida with his seven-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) and a one-eyed rescue cat called Fred. Mary is a child prodigy who immediately captures the attention of her first-grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) with her advanced grasp of maths.
When she asks if Frank has ever looked into schools for the gifted, she finds that he and Mary are both well aware of her talents, but her guardian has his reasons for trying to give his niece a normal life. However, Bonnie’s efforts draw the attention of Frank’s estranged mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who suddenly takes a very intense interest in her granddaughter. Frank won’t budge, but neither will Evelyn, and a painful battle for custody ensues.
If you had dismissed this one out of hand from the trailers, you’ll have to trust us when we say that it must have been a tough one to market. The official trailer ends with a hard cut to a beat in which Frank’s neighbour Roberta (Octavia Spencer) threatens to smother him in his sleep, a gag that lands like a lead balloon at the end of a short promo for an uplifting dramedy. In context, the film is much wittier and warmer than the trailers led us to believe.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s certainly sentimental and melodramatic, but director Marc Webb (who also has Marvel form, on Sony’s studio-addled Amazing Spider-Man movies) and writer Tom Flynn definitely have a handle on that. The Black List nominated script has big laughs and tearjerking scenes alike, and as predictable as the premise may sound, it’s engrossing all the same.
You might be expecting this sort of comparison from a geek site, but at times, the drama goes along similar lines as Evans’ most recent Marvel appearance, Captain America: Civil War, except that Frank is no Steve Rogers. What Evans brings is a similar foursquare determination to do the right thing, for reasons that the antagonists don’t understand. Evelyn is no Wicked Stepmother either, even if she’s sometimes just as callous when it comes to children. This movie is more clearly on Team Frank than Team Evelyn, but for the most part, it’s not always as clear cut as it seems.
If you ever find yourself sympathising with Evelyn, it probably won’t last that long, because Evans and Mckenna Grace are adorable together. It’s gratifying that Mary is such an irrepressible character, believably whip-smart but also bang on in her comic timing, and she gets plenty of opportunity to show it. Frank is at one point referred to as “the sad, tortured hot guy” by an admirer, but Evans relishes making more of him than that.
Aside from the central family, Jenny Slate is lovely as Bonnie and although it’s not a love story (like Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer) ,I was entirely unsurprised to learn after the screening that she and Evans were a real life couple after discovering their chemistry here. Glenn Plummer steals a few scenes as Frank’s lawyer too, but the zingy script finds a lot for everyone to do. If there’s a downside, it’s that while most films could use more Octavia Spencer, this one actually has her show up to do not a lot.
My advice would be to keep your expectations for Gifted exactly where they are, but definitely give it a look. It’s a testament to its implacable sweetness and charm that the third act somehow manages to be satisfying even as it flagrantly stops being so even-handed in its family dispute. It’s a rare thing to a sweet movie to be this smart, and vice versa, and exactly the sort of film a once-star-spangled man could keep on doing for years to come.
Gifted is in UK cinemas now.