It’s not a perfect film, but “Gifted” is a little darling. It gives us a light, feel-good drama about three generations of a family on diverging paths. The stabs of seriousness never feel too far over the top. Lessons are learned and happy resolutions earned by good storytelling, acting and direction. If you think “Awwww,” when “A Hallmark Presentation” comes on the TV, this is for you.
It is a simple, straightforward film, but sometimes that’s all you need as long as its heart is true. If a film works, it works. This is proof that you can still present a good story without a huge budget and computer-generated gimmicks.
Surprisingly, the star and director both embraced this story after tearing off their Marvel superhero armor. Chris Evans retains the soulful, soft-spoken charm of Captain America in a human-scale role. Marc Webb, director of the last two Spider-Man movies, returns to the sort of relationship themes that made his feature debut, “500 Days of Summer,” such a popular not-a-love-story. What seems enjoyable to us must feel like blessed relief to them. If you think you’re a little tired of chest insignia and spandex, think how they feel about it.
There are no galactic villains here, only fallible adults. At times it feels like almost all the characters are in the same boat, which seems on point. With unglossed earnestness and no-nonsense humor, Evans plays Frank, a mechanic servicing boats on a sunny, small-town Florida dock. He’s the steward of his orphaned niece, Mary, providing the 7-year-old with his love, attention and a bed in the messy rental shack they share with his one-eyed tabby, Fred.
He sends her to school against her will, makes her lunches and fields her inquisitive questions about the nature of life just as all parents would. But Mary is not like all children. She inherited her late mother’s off-the-charts genius in mathematics. While she needs to learn the same basic socialization skills as other first-graders, Mary is a computational prodigy whose talents begin raising questions her first week in school.
How and why Frank decided to settle Mary into a school system and lifestyle as far as possible from the Ivy League are issues the film uses to hold us in a state of puzzled curiosity. The waiting period until the answers arrive allows us to focus on the relationship between the pair, which is fine.
As Mary, Mckenna Grace radiates a sense of precocious impishness that instantly puts her in the “star of tomorrow” category that Natalie Portman and Elle Fanning showed at their youngest. Grace steals every scene like a kleptomaniac. It doesn’t matter if the moment is roughhouse play with Evans, wondering aloud about what’s really up there past the clouds or becoming distressed when a courtroom custody battle begins chipping her life away. Wherever Grace is in camera range, she’s unstoppable.
Much of the film’s attention goes to its strong female supporting cast. Octavia Spencer plays Frank’s next-door neighbor, Roberta, as friendliness incarnate. She watches the girl on weekend sleepovers so Frank can have a ration of beer, female companionship and privacy. Spencer is an irresistible screen performer, equally good sharing the home karaoke spotlight with Grace for a noisy, dance-crazy duet or giving Evans a piece of her mind about his priorities.
Next to her bright positive comes the dark negative of British actress Lindsay Duncan as Evelyn, Mary’s elegant, intellectual, steely grandmother on Frank’s side. She approaches him to return Mary to what she sees as both a matter of the greater good and family honor. She believes that Mary should continue her mother’s groundbreaking research into the Navier-Stokes problem, a real-life theoretical riddle in three dimensions, making her world famous and a million dollars richer. But it’s a task she would have to share with a staff of adult scholars, and Frank argues that a regular childhood is much more valuable.
Duncan keeps the character coolly disdainful of Frank’s ramshackle life, which doesn’t provide even health insurance for Mary. She also adds a tone of genuine class. To Frank’s sense that everyday love can help teach the way to live, she demonstrates the privileges of a scholarly life. The empathy shown for a number of side characters is another of the reasons that “Gifted” works way better than it has any right to.