Frank (Chris Evans) is a single man raising his seven-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in a sleepy Florida town. Mary is a maths genius, though Frank tries to give her a normal, everyday life. When her talents come to the attention of Frank’s formidable mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), however, their life is thrown into turmoil.
Chris Evans is no stranger to superheroes. He was the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, telekinetic ‘Mover’ Nick Grant in Push, and someone called Captain America (no, us neither) in a little-seen series of films. In Gifted he has no special powers — the title doesn’t even refer to him — but as Florida-based boat mechanic Frank, he demonstrates an everyday heroism by raising his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) following the suicide of her mother.
Mary is the gifted one, having inherited mega-brained maths skills from her mother. Frank, all too aware of how his sister was damaged by the pressures laid on her during her academic rise, wants to shield Mary from a similar fate. A former college professor himself, he is convinced his young charge should live a life of normality. He stoically scraps against the system in a bid to keep Mary in a local school rather than have her dispatched to a faraway facility for brainiacs. He also broods a lot.
What might have been a cutesy Good Will Hunting evolves into a slender echo of Kramer Vs Kramer.
Still, Evans plays his part with conviction. As does Mckenna Grace, cracking equations and cracking wise with a naturalness that quite belies the fact it’s just the script that is priming her with MIT-standard algebra. You believe Grace can solve any of the six outstanding Millennium Prize Problems. Delicately handled and precise, she is the soulful centre of this movie. There is also a strong supporting turn from the somewhat underused Octavia Spencer, as their neighbour and Mary’s mother figure, and from Jenny Slate, playing Mary’s grade school teacher and Frank’s love interest.
To begin with, everything goes swimmingly. Frank, Mary and their monocular cat live a spirited and lovely life in the sun. Eventually, though, Frank’s harridan mother (Lindsay Duncan) arrives. A stiff patrician with an English accent (tsk!), she’s such a one-dimensional ice queen she could probably reign in Narnia. Once alerted to her granddaughter’s potential, she immediately decides she wants Mary to continue in the family business: maths. She plans on whisking Mary away to a life of insular tutelage in Boston. It is here things start to go awry, for Frank and his niece, and for the film itself.
What might have been a slightly cutesy and female-focussed rendition of Good Will Hunting now evolves into a slender echo of Kramer Vs Kramer (or ‘Insert-Courtroom-Drama-Here’) as a largely predictable custody battle takes centre stage. There is one baffling moment when a deal is cut and Frank surrenders Mary to foster folks — which seems unlikely given his intransigence thus far — and this leaves the audience to count the minutes until their tearful reunion. As the film heads towards its conclusion the drama slips into melodrama — cue an interminable scene at a maternity ward — the tear-jerking turning saccharine.
And this is surprising. After all, director Marc Webb, who comes swinging out of the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies, should be landing on familiar ground. With (500) Days Of Summer, Webb demonstrated a firm grasp of relationships, bringing a deft touch and an appreciation of poignancy. With Gifted, he slips into obvious pitfalls and booby-traps. We know he can do better.
Warm and heartfelt performances from the two principals are undercut by a formula that too readily reveals the outcome. Interesting workings fail to fully add up. Must do better next term.