Sometimes it’s nice to just sit down and watch a warm, sweet movie with good values and charming performances from its cast. When I saw the trailer for the Chris Evans/cute kid vehicle Gifted, I groaned a little bit. This one had all the potential in the world to be a sappy saccharine-filled pusbucket of feels. Films like this excel in the writing and performances. Generally, the writing in these types of movies is pretty standard and then the rest of the film lives or dies based on other qualities. I am here to tell you not to fret because this was a nice enjoyable film with strong performances and it never felt too pushy or self-important when it came to its values.
Thirtysomething Frank Adler (Chris Evans) has been raising his young niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) ever since her brilliant mathematician mother Evelyn (and his sister) took her own life when Mary was only six months old. Though he initially attempts to raise her as a normal child in a public school, her young teacher Miss Stevenson (Jenny Slate) soon becomes quite aware that Mary is intellectually gifted and tries to encourage Frank to pursue a higher education for her. He is not fond of the idea and soon it develops into a custody battle with his mother (Lindsay Duncan) wanting Mary to be just like her mother while Frank still hopes to keep her with him and have her normal life.
Right off the bat, I will say that this film is not a classic or particularly groundbreaking film exploring the relationship between father and daughter. It is a cute examination of family though and how mounting pressures can have disastrous results. It is also a film about deciding what is best for a child in an unselfish way and that is examined on both ends. Even though the film is guilty of making Evelyn a little too broadly evil at times (some of her dialogue is particularly venomous), both sides of the coin are given some pretty valid points about why Mary should end up with them. What I also really enjoyed was that despite the fact that this film could’ve devolved into a courtroom/custody battle drama, it steers clear of long court scenes except for a few necessary ones to establish the situation.
The acting in the film is top-notch. Chris Evans has come a long way since Not Another Teen Movie and plays this role with the right amount of gravitas and weight. He is very believable as a single father figure just trying to do what is right for his niece. His relationship with Mckenna Grace in the movie is completely believable and she was also a very well-rounded child performer. Even as Grace plays a sort-of precocious child, she doesn’t have that annoying “movie child” thing where everything she says sounds so fabricated and clearly written by an adult. Some of the scenes with Evans and Grace together are real tear-jerkers and some of them are downright genuine and sweet. I won’t reveal the tear-jerking ones out of the fear of ruining anything but a scene shot completely in silhouette of Grace hanging off Evans’ arm while asking him about God (trust me, this isn’t a Pureflix-type discussion) was one of the cutest scenes in the entire film.
It was really nice to see Jenny Slate receive a fairly high billing in a mainstream film as she’s always been an underrated comic performer. Here, she puts those talents to work especially with her timing in one scene where she is “caught in the act” by Grace but she also does some solid dramatic work as well. Slate also has good chemistry with Evans (as she should seeing as how they dated each other and all). I wish there had been more to Octavia Spencer’s part because she does a good job as usual but doesn’t have a whole lot of purpose other than being an additional supportive voice for Evans’ character. Lindsay Duncan plays the mother who may be a bit too over-the-top evil at times for this particular film but the actress can only work with what she is given and she does fine.
Marc Webb’s direction is straight-forward but effective. He lets the performers occupy the space and keeps the camera trickery to a minimum so much that when it is noticeable, it is a lot more effective and stands out a great deal. For Webb to go from (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man (1 & 2) to this quiet family dramedy is an intriguing transition but if you watch the former film, you will realize that Webb isn’t drawn so much to the largely-choreographed big-scale pictures per se but rather the relationship between characters and motivations behind them.
There is also an interesting story quirk involving a one-eyed cat named Fred that is repeatedly ogled by Mary. What could easily have just been a “cute cat” addition to the story also serves as an interesting metaphor to the film itself. The cat’s imperfection (namely the one eye) is not mourned but rather celebrated and Mary often refers to Fred as being unique but still loves him in the same way and doesn’t treat him any differently much like how Frank doesn’t want to treat Mary any differently despite the fact that she is… well… “gifted.”
So what do we have here? An adorable picture starring a cute kid and a bunch of good actors with a solid premise and decent writing. A fine time at the movies.
RATING: *** ½
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)