Going into Gifted largely cold in terms of knowing exactly what the movie was about, I somehow had the impression that it was a vaguely science-fictional tale about a child mathematical genius and the battle over control of her abilities. That wasn’t totally wrong, but rather than being a cerebral meditation of sorts, Gifted is instead a family melodrama combined with aspects of a comedy and a courtroom story. That it works for at least a chunk of its length is due to the ideas expressed and a restrained, moving performance from Chris Evans that proves he can do heroics without a shield and super-strength.
Evans plays Frank, who repairs boats in a small central Florida hamlet and is raising his seven-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) following what we soon find out was the suicide of her mother when she was an infant. Mary’s mom was a math genius whose work on the Navier-Stokes Problem, one of the world’s great unsolved equations, had her in line for a possible Nobel Prize. It turns out that Mary herself is a prodigy too; having already mastered calculus, she is far too advanced for the public school that Frank has placed her in because he wants her to have a normal childhood, and her behavior at the school immediately becomes an issue.
Enter Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother, the wealthy but chilly Evelyn (the great Lindsay Duncan), a one-time math wizard herself who gave it all up to raise her two children. Having prepped her daughter for a life of conquering mathematics, Evelyn intends to gain custody of Mary and do the same with her. Frank, of course, is opposed, setting up a family struggle and courtroom confrontation that raises questions of what kind of environment is best for any child, especially an exceptional one, and whether a parent or family in the traditional sense is necessarily the right thing for anybody.
Those are solid themes to ponder and Gifted (directed by Marc Webb, making a return to his indie roots after his two ill-fated Amazing Spider-Man entries) occasionally lands on them in poignant and thought-provoking fashion. But instead of staying focused on the core conflict, Gifted wanders all over the map and, particularly in its third act, wheels out enough would-be surprise revelations and twists to stock a soap opera, which the movie veers toward becoming in its more maudlin second half.
What saves the picture is the genuinely heartwarming chemistry between Evans and Grace. The latter is plucky and funny, while Evans’ easygoing charm and unforced vulnerability show him to be quite capable of carrying a performance and a movie without a costume and special effects to help him out (I’m being a little unfair, to be honest: I think Evans does a superb job both in and out of costume when he’s playing Captain America). The actor is also quite capable of holding his own against the mighty Duncan, whose every line is delivered like a dagger and who also does fantastic work revealing the wounded yet closed-off person inside her rigid armor (she’s also got a few witty moments as well).
Less effective are Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate as, respectively, the wise, soulful neighbor who helps Frank raise Mary and the teacher turned love interest. Both of them are there to perform just those functions and nothing more, with Slate’s character in particular coming very close to being superfluous. But there are a lot of superfluous elements to Gifted, a movie with a lot of heart that, unlike its star, doesn’t always know when to pull back and reign in the heartstring-tugging. It’s entertaining, it’s quite moving in a few spots, but unlike Mary, it’s not as exceptional as it could be.
Gifted is out in theaters this Friday (April 7).