Let’s do the sums. You have a precocious little girl, a child prodigy who speaks to adults with cute sassiness + a custody courtroom battle with emotional speeches + an aggressively insistent soundtrack + the director of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb). When you run the numbers, Gifted should be insufferable. But it’s not. It’s a minor movie, sure, but a sweet one.
Chris Evans plays Frank, a salt of the earth guy who wears baseball caps and fixes boats on the Florida coast and looks after his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), thrust into his care as an infant when his brilliant but damaged sister committed suicide. Mary is starting the first grade, with Jenny Slate’s Bonnie as her teacher, but she’s blitzing through the work, having inherited her mother’s genius for mathematics. Frank wants her to be a good person with a normal life, but school authorities, joined by Frank’s icy British mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), insist that she live a life able to match her potential, and the two sides go to court to decide on her future In concept at least, it comes off as daytime TV movie melodrama.
The conflict between blue-collar normality and intellectual promise obviously suggests a pint-sized version of Good Will Hunting but Gifted is smaller and more intimate, less interested in theatrics (there is, mercifully, only one scene of high-tempo blackboard scribbling). The child prodigy part of the story mostly functions as a way of testing the central relationships and forcing Frank and other people who care about Mary into difficult decisions. The narrative is at its most convincing, and moving, when it acknowledges that in the absence of Mary’s mother, neither party really knows what she would have wanted, and what, ultimately, is best for the child. Both Frank and Evelyn are driven not by ego, but by the fear of getting it wrong; of protecting against, or somehow making up for, the tragedy of the mother. A beautifully composed conversation between Frank and Mary about faith and death, a scene that would be unbearable without the two’s chemistry, emphasizes the importance of uncertainty.
The cast are indispensable. Out of his red, white and blue spandex, Evans has an easy charm as a performer, bringing solidity even when the material seems silly (and, on occasion, it gets very silly). Together, he and Grace have a carefree, domestic believably. Slate, too, as Frank’s romantic interest, is a very likeable actress, and, as we know from Gillian Robespierre’s challenging rom-com Obvious Child, very capable of going beyond the high-comic mode of Mona-Lisa Saperstein; her trademark bird-like laugh communicates a nervous vulnerability. Duncan is imposing as the mother whose studied reserve suggests rational good intent; only Octavia Spencer, as a trope-like black woman next door, feels under-served by Tom Flynn’s script.
Gifted often walks right up the line of saccharine, and even beyond it, but even then the charming cast make it just about work. Easy to watch and dramatically reserved, it would feel at home on Netflix, but box office support is encouraged, if only to help Evans and Slate get meatier studio work. They, too, have great potential. Conor Smyth
Gifted is on UK release from Friday 16th June.