Film Review: ‘Gifted’ Utilizes Strong Acting to Overcome Cliches

Without question, you’ve seen something like “Gifted” before. In fact, the plot developments in the film are almost entirely predictable. This drama doesn’t miss a single cliche in the book, but at the same time, it handles them nearly perfectly. That makes for a surprisingly good movie, one that’s in no way original, but still manages to place a well-timed lump or two in your throat. Director Marc Webb goes to great lengths to never give you sugar shock, and with only one or two exceptions, he succeeds.

Ever since the death of his math prodigy sister, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) has been the guardian of his young niece Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace). She’s a child prodigy too, but Frank is careful to make sure that Mary leads as normal a life as possible. As a former professor turned boat repairman, he’s been homeschooling her, but he now wants her to attend public school. With her only friends being a one-eyed cat named Fred and next door neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Mary needs to just be a kid. On her first day, however, she shows up her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) with her incredibly advanced math skills. Frank handles it, and actually begins a flirtation with Bonnie, but Mary’s gifts have been noticed, leading Frank’s estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) to enter the picture.

Evelyn is not just trying to finally be a grandmother, she also wants to sue Frank for custody in order to nurture Mary. With the legal challenge she’s brought, Frank’s life has gotten a lot more complicated.

This might be the best work that Evans has done to date, and that’s including his iconic turns as Captain America. Not only is he incredibly empathetic, he’s as quick-witted as ever. This is a low-key turn that still manages to showcase his huge star power. The quiet moments between Frank and his niece are just incredibly moving. If Evans continues to mix this in with his superhero work, he’ll have a long and distinguished career. Duncan is also surprisingly sympathetic in what could have been a villain role, though she only really comes through towards the end.

As strong as Evans is, he’s upstaged by young Mckenna Grace, who is just outstanding. She tugs at the heartstrings and handles her complicated technical dialogue with aplomb. When Grace asks Evans some tough questions about life, both are impressive, but she goes above and beyond. She’s best in show, without question. As for Slate and Spencer, both play the same types of characters that they’ve been playing. They’re fine, but hardly memorable. Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth Marvel and Glenn Plummer, among others.

With “Gifted,” Webb washes away his brush with blockbusters in one fell swoop. Though nowhere near as artful as “(500) Days of Summer,” this movie is a definite step up from “The Amazing Spider-Man” and worlds better than “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Here, he captures the heart of his debut feature. Occasionally, Webb and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh compose some really beautiful shots. The aforementioned conversation about deep issues between Evans and Grace is set against a sunset that is absolutely breathtaking. Composer Rob Simonsen lays it on a little thick at times, but that comes along with the territory.

It’s fascinating to see a screenplay telegraph so much and yet do it so effectively. Scribe Tom Flynn wants you to feel every single emotion in the biggest way possible. It’s a recipe for something over the top and melodramatic, and yet it never devolves into that. There’s an occasional cliche worthy of an eye roll, but more often than not, you find yourself wrapped up in the next turn that the script has thrown at you.

The end result here is that “Gifted” wears its heart on its sleeve enough to overcome the flaws inherent in telling such a familiar tale. Some people just won’t be able to get past the lack of originality, but more likely folks will be on board with how effective it all is. Emotionally manipulative but an expert at said manipulation, “Gifted” is a throwback drama that is a rarer beast than it first appears.

“Gifted” is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and opens in theaters on April 7.

GRADE: (★★★)

Trailer:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tI01wBXGHUs&w=560&h=315]