Directed by Marc Webb (who made his feature film debut with (500) Days of Summer and later rebooted The Amazing Spider-Man), Gifted is a fresh take on the custody battle melodrama. While this iteration lacks the personal complexity of some it’s predecessor (mostly due to the underdevelopment of some its secondary characters) it is still a heart-felt story that delivers the tears due to the fantastic performances of it two leads. Chris Evans plays Frank Adler, a single university academic turned boat repairman who takes on the task of raising his spirited young niece Mary (newcomer McKenna Grace), a brilliant and “gifted” child prodigy, in a coastal Florida town. When Mary’s wealthy Bostonian grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) discovers her granddaughters command of mathematics, she threatens to separate Mary and Frank and thwart their attempt at leading a normal life. As family tensions and disconnections flare, uncle and niece find support in Roberta (Octavia Spencer), their protective landlady and best friend, and Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), a young woman whose concern for her student soon develops into a relationship with her uncle as well.
The immediate standout of the film is McKenna Grace as the titular gifted child Mary. She will undoubtedly draw comparisons to past outstanding child performances like Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam or more recently Jacob Tremblay in Room. Grace’s command of every emotional moment, of which there are many and wide in range, is not only a credit to her but her co-star Chris Evans. His subtle yet nuanced performance makes Frank a perfect foil to Mary. His wit and charm allows him to, at times, verbally spar with his young scene partner, while still maintaining a sense of love, fear and vulnerability. This pair, along with the direction of Marc Webb, provide an incredible strong emotional center for the film which could have otherwise fallen flat. As a result, we see Mary go from being a plucky, quick-lipped rascal to an emotionally complex and endearing young girl that you can’t help but love and care for. Frank, meanwhile, endures both a real life struggle in the form of a custody battle as well as an emotional one; constantly wrought with guilt over the choices he’s made as a guardian. Between these two is a story that will undoubtedly resonate with parents.
The one area where this film lacks is in developing the relationships between Frank and the other characters. The contentious relationship he has with his mother Evelyn is suitable but is undercut by the enigmatic one he has with his sister, who in all actuality, is just as important to the story as Mary. As a viewer your left to fill in the missing pieces and just accept that Frank and his sister were really close. While not a egregious to the storyline, the same issue applies to the relationship between Frank and Roberta as well as the seemingly forced romance with Bonnie. The latter being a little unnecessary.
Despite some pacing issues at the beginning of the film, once the courtroom drama begins, the story picks up and along the way are some really great moments such as the one where Mary is asked to solve an extremely difficult math problem and later the one in a hospital waiting room. With a gut-punch ending that perfectly ties everything together, Gifted is wonderful (if not a little too prescriptive) film that follows all the appropriate beats and serves a delightful love letter to parents.