Chris Evans trades in shield for family drama in Gifted (movie review)

Gifted. Credit: Wilson Webb.

Gifted. Credit: Wilson Webb.

After two high profile Spider-Man movies, director Marc Webb just can’t seem to quit superheroes. (Or at least the actors that play them.) In Webb’s latest film, Gifted, the only superpowers that Chris Evans has are his perfectly unkempt beard and his super average parenting skills. In a fairly epic departure from his previous two blockbuster films, Webb (500 Days of Summer) returns to his smaller film roots. He directs Evans and McKenna Grace in a film that highlights the challenges faced by a non-traditional father and an extraordinary child. Although the film can be a bit twee at times, the earnest and heartfelt performances by its two leads are hard to resist.

Evans plays Frank, a freelance boat repairman. He also serves as the guardian for 6-year-old Mary (Grace), a precocious with a capital P child. Her genius is shown to us early in the film via a showdown with her first-grade teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), over some increasingly challenging math problems. This revelation of Mary’s gift causes serious repercussions for the pair. It brings Mary back into the sights of her maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Evelyn is a strict disciplinarian who wants to nurture and focus Mary’s mathematical genius.

We soon learn the tragic backstory of Mary’s mother (Frank’s sister), a renowned mathematician who committed suicide soon after Mary was born. Frank wants to raise Mary as a “normal” kid, away from the tutors and think tanks that Evelyn wants to expose Mary to. This conflict is ultimately resolved through a custody battle in the courtrooms. (Arguably the weakest parts of the film.) It features Frank and Evelyn each arguing about what is best for Mary.

Evans showcases a much softer and quieter side in this film. It’s a nice departure from his zealous and dialed up Steve Rogers. The real scene stealer of Gifted is the adorable Grace. She has a mischievous grin (complete with missing front teeth) and innocent whimsy, and they’re out in force in nearly every scene. Her character’s inner genius is intermittently interrupted by bouts of real childlike joy and anguish. It reminds us that in spite of her prodigious mind, inside there still beats the heart of a six-year-old girl. The banter between Grace and Evans feels natural and genuine. The real father/daughter chemistry explodes in nearly every scene they share.

The excellent moments between the two leads only serves to emphasize the rather underwritten supporting cast. Octavia Spencer is fantastic as always in a relatively small role as Frank’s neighbor Roberta. Slate’s teacher character feels rather underdeveloped, serving as little more than the revealer of Mary’s gifts, and a bolted-on love interest for Frank. It’s a shame as Slate has shown tremendous range in other films but is underutilized here. The same is true of Duncan’s cold matriarch, a rather one-dimensional character who is given few moments to demonstrate any sort of complexity.

Final Reaction

The film also doesn’t really stray too far from its genre tropes. It dutifully takes us from conflict to conflict to happy resolution. We know that Mary loves Frank and that Frank wants to keep Mary. We also know that there is something that will break them apart, but something that will ultimately put them back together. You know what? That’s okay. Not every movie needs to challenge you with an ambiguous or heartbreaking ending. Sometimes, we want to see the guy get the girl. In this case, it’s the uncle getting to keep his 6-year-old ward. Even if the journey itself can be a little predictable, watching Evans and Grace develop their familial bonds makes the trip worthwhile.

Rating: 4/5 Atoms

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