It’s hard not to go into a movie like Gifted with your mind made up. It’s a film that, for better or worse, has been made in varying forms countless times, with a handful of narrative spit-shines and twists to differentiate each variant from one another. But for all the well-worn emotional territories it walks, Marc Webb’s post-Spidey palate-cleanser manages to spin the formula in some surprisingly satisfying ways.
The broad strokes are these: soulful and isolated boat repairman Frank Adler (Chris Evans) lives in a rural Florida town, and has just two friends (three, if you count his one-eyed cat, Frank). The first is Roberta (Octavia Spencer), a soft-hearted landlord-cum-mother figure. The second is his child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace), whose impressive mental capacities allow her to add up complicated sums in her head with incredible speed. But when Frank sends the pint-sized genius to school – under the guise of teaching her what the phrase “ad nauseum” means – her intellectual capacity is sniffed out by perceptive schoolteacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), and some well-meaning snooping soon triggers a series of events that finds Frank and his estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) locked in a legal custody battle over the young girl.
The film shakes out just about as you might imagine – there are intense court proceedings in which surprising elements of Frank’s life are revealed, shocking familial demons uncovered, and many, many tears shed on the way to Gifted’s inevitable happy ending.
But where the film’s scaffolding is easy to predict, Gifted’s smaller, more intimate decisions are less so. The narrative invention of Mary as a gifted child part of a much-longer line of familial geniuses is a small stroke of inspired (if contrived) crafting from screenwriter from Tom Flynn, who helps to keep the film from falling into the trap of claustrophobic stilted court dramas of yesteryear. Instead, the second act finds the film briefly paying homage to Good Will Hunting as Mary taps away on a chalkboard thrice her height in a certain unnamed Boston-based university.
Working in a similar palate to the sun-soaked (500) Days of Summer albeit with a much scuzzier tint (it is Florida, after all), Webb does a similarly sharp job of tuning into the smaller moments of Gifted that keep it elevated and effervescent. In perhaps the best scene of the film, Frank and Mary spar about the potential existence of God as Webb shoots the pair in silhouette against a setting sun, and Mary climbs about Frank’s body like a child desperate for a bigger challenge than her local park’s jungle gym. It’s a small, stylistic choice, and a scene that in any leaner or less emotionally invested film, might have been left out of the final cut. But it’s a perfect example of the ways in which Gifted manages to rise above other films of its ilk.
Of course, the all-star cast helps: Evans cashes in on his trademark pained stare honed to perfection during his years as Captain America, and he and Grace try out their considerable chemistry as surrogate father and daughter to tear-jerking effect. Slate and Evans are as sweet and believable as you’d imagine considering their real-life romance blossomed on set, and their comfortable rapport is palpably fun to watch even when their romantic trajectory isn’t. Spencer is, unfortunately, largely wasted – though she shares an exuberant karaoke scene with Grace that defies any viewer not to smile.
Gifted, like its central father figure, is simple at its core. It’s a well-drawn tear-jerker that’s more deeply felt than the more run-of-the-mill family dramas it can’t help but resemble. Ultimately, it’s not a genius revamp of the formula, nor is it profound enough to become a classic of its small subgenre. But for those drawn in by its blandly charming premise, it’s safe to say you’ll find quite a bit to like in Gifted, if not that much to remember.
Gifted opens in select cities Friday, April 7 and expands thereafter.