Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: "Gifted"

I like it when big stars and high-profile filmmakers do small movies. Almost everybody gets their start making tiny no-budget indies, so it’s nice to see a return to roots. It’s an opportunity for them to stretch their wings and do something a little more daring artistically.

“Gifted” isn’t a terribly audacious movie, but it is a tender and warm-hearted one.

Most people know Chris Evans these days as Captain America, but here he plays Frank Adler, a seemingly hard-headed man who lives in a Florida coastal town with his 7-year-old niece, Mary. Frank fixes boat motors for a living and tools around in a rusted pickup, spending his Friday nights swallowing suds at the local dive bar while a friendly neighbor watches the kid.

He’s one of those guys we pass by in our daily lives, wearing a dirty T-shirt and toiling at a menial job, and we think we know everything there is to know about him.

But Mary is a f’real genius, a first-grader who can do mathematics at a level to stump most doctoral candidates. She’s played by Mckenna Grace, a blonde, gapped-tooth zephyr of pure personality and joy. Mary hasn’t had much chance to socialize with kids her age, but Frank feels it’s important she go to a regular school and live the life of a normal kid.

It doesn’t take long for her sharp 1st grade teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), to spot the Einstein in her midst, though. Soon the principal is brought in, experts weigh in with their opinion, which is that Mary should be going to a special school for the gifted. Frank resists.

Things grow more complicated when Mary’s grandmother shows up after a 7-year absence. Evelyn Adler (Lindsay Duncan) is, to use Frank’s words, “very British.” Picture the very epitome of the rich, uptight, smart, snooty English lady who think nothing is ever quite good enough -- that’s Evelyn.

It seems Mary’s mother, who killed herself while Mary was still a baby, was also a math whiz who was on the verge of solving some Very Big and Important Problem. Now Evelyn thinks Mary is the one to carry on her work, and sues Frank -- her son -- for custody.

Unlike other movies of this kind, the court case is not really the center of the movie, which spends very little time in front of the judge. Instead, we drop in there for time to time to hear more testimony, where we learn more about the characters and circumstances. So the judicial proceeding spurs the story rather than carrying it.

I really liked Glenn Plummer as Frank’s attorney, a wise and weary local lawyer who understands that family law is a tricky area where emotions and predispositions can be more important than the law part. Octavia Spencer is in her usual fine form as Roberta, Frank’s neighbor in the squalid little cluster of rental homes where they both live. She’s the super, has helped raise Mary and sees her partially her own.

“Gifted” is an original screenplay by Tom Flynn, who wrote only one other movie about a quarter-century ago. Director Marc Webb helmed the last two “Spider-Man” movies, so like Evans he’s getting back to basics with a small, intimate film like this.

The movie is a little too predictable for its own sake, but the actors embrace the material and imbue their characters with a good deal of emotional truth. Frank is a caretaker, not just for Mary but for his sister’s memory, too. He’s not terribly happy about the burden, but (mostly) carries it without complaint.

Evelyn isn’t an outright villain, and the movie is careful to show how she can give Mary a life that Frank cannot -- one that the girl herself is eager to pursue. Grace’s performance is carefully tuned to demonstrate how an extraordinary mind can exist inside the head of a little girl who still wants to frolic on the beach and play with her one-eyed cat, Fred.

Movies are a lot like kids: you have to let them be what they want to be, rather than what we might wish ourselves. Taken on its own ample merits, “Gifted” makes its own mark.

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