From a distance, “Gifted” might not seem like much. It’s a combination of two kinds of movies — or rather two kinds of movie cliches — a custody battle story, and a story about a math genius. In this case, the genius is a gifted natural, kind of like Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting,” only a lot younger.
But in its details, in its characters and their relationships, in the unfolding of its story, and even in the delicacy of its filming, “Gifted” rises above cynical expectation. Far from a canned piece of work, it feels sincere and inspired. It’s not going to shake up the world, but it’s a very nice and well-made movie.
It also signals a moment of redemption for Chris Evans, who has spent the past few years blotting out the memory that he was ever an actor by playing Captain America in an endless series of superhero movies, some of them good, some of them bad, but all of them vaguely embarrassing. The case of Evans is practically a question for some philosophy class — would you take unimaginable fame and wealth in exchange for years of your life spent running around in tights and pretending it matters? But here he’s lovely, not ridiculous or arrogant, but sensitive and full of some very becoming humility. He plays a man trying to raise his 7-year-old niece.
As the niece, Mary, Mckenna Grace is about the cutest thing on the planet; and, unusual for a child actor (particularly for one playing a math genius), she is not in the least obnoxious. She, along with director Marc Webb and writer Tom Flynn, makes Mary interesting even before we realize her special talent. At first, all we know is that she’s smart and that Uncle Frank (Evans) seems inordinately worried about the outside world figuring that out.
The first outsider to grasp Mary’s gift is her first-grade teacher, played by Jenny Slate. If you saw Slate in “Obvious Child,” you might well be surprised to find that this is not someone doomed to portraying relentless personalities. She’s quiet, gentle and concerned here; and yet her comic ability pays off in several scenes. Slate is inspired casting here.
Frank’s mission in life, his reason for being, is to make sure that Mary has a childhood, that she has friends and joins the Girl Scouts and someday goes to the prom. If this means not fully exploiting a God-given gift, he’s OK with that, but even then he’s not sure. Some gifts are so extraordinary they’re practically like emanations from the beyond. Is it right or wrong for a person in possession of such a gift not to commit to its special frequency?
One person with a sure answer is Lindsay Duncan as Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother. Duncan, who scared Michael Keaton as the film critic in “Birdman,” goes a long way toward scaring the entire audience in “Gifted.” Once she knows that Mary has the special family gift, she insists that the little girl should live with her and that Mary’s life should be spent doing nothing but studying math and expanding her abilities.
Though there is no question in any viewer’s mind as to which parent figure is preferable, the script makes the interesting choice of giving each side its due. No one is entirely wrong or right. To consign a little child to a galley-slave existence of around-the-clock drudgery would be cruel. At the same time, running from a gift is at the very least impractical, and at worst is a denial of selfhood.
“Gifted” sifts through these issues, while staying close to the emotions of the case, and long before the end, it has built an intense involvement within the viewer. By the time the movie is through, you end up caring about the fate of everybody in the movie. And not just the people — little Mary’s cat, too.