Ever since Sony cut Marc Webb’s Spider-Man trilogy short, he’s silently focused on television producing (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, anyone?). Despite the time away, Gifted – his feature “comeback” of sorts – doesn’t flake any rust. It’s a return to heartfelt, human dramatics, more attuned to 500 Days Of Summer than spandex-clad photographers or a musical psycho romantic. Chris “Captain America” Evans may lead, but Webb’s only superhero is young Mckenna Grace whenever she’s outshining her adult cast. We’re talking Onata-Aprile-in-What-Maisie-Knew levels of childhood stardom, before the searing lights of Hollywood have blasted away pure, adolescent innocence. Go ahead and find me another 11-year-old who can outshine Octavia Spencer. I dare you.
Evans stars as Frank Adler, a single guardian who cares for his sister’s daughter post-suicide. Frank lives with Mary (Mckenna Grace) in a mosquito-trap Florida shack, where the two pursue a “normal” life. Mary isn’t just another 7-year-old, though. While other classmates are learning mathematics at a 1st-grade level, Mary is solving complex calculus equations and correcting college professors. Yet, Frank doesn’t want to raise her as “different,” per her mother’s wishes – then grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) steps into frame. A formal lawsuit pits Frank and Evelyn against one another – son versus mother – with the victor winning custodial rights to Mary. Either she’ll move to Boston and pursue prodigious math accolades, or remain in Florida where humble social growth will be stressed. But what does SHE want? Unfortunately, it’s a a decision Mary has no say in.
Gifted flaunts touching performance power, but Webb’s vision sometimes weakens heavy blows. Specifically, whenever cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh rattles the camera like a drunkard who can’t hold position. One scene in particular captures a settlement conversation between Frank and his lawyer – on land – yet it’s more nauseating than a boat ride at sea. You don’t gain a gritty edge by distorting camera tremors – why complicate exchanges that are more about spoken distress than visual representation? It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but something unnecessary in a parental drama.
Tom Flynn’s script does a swell job bonding connections between multiple characters, but third-act twists echo boot-camp numbness versus creative childhoods a bit too hard. Evelyn’s Gestapo-like domination becomes something of a gimmick, so far as revealing established restraining orders to keep her deceased daughter from “losing focus” (disallowing male companionship and vacations). Mary’s gift is a “responsibility” Evelyn wants to fully realize, even if it means sterilized genius schools and lifetimes dedicated only to Nobel notoriety. Frank never wants Mary to become the number-crunching robot her troubled mother once was, while Evelyn seems more occupied with Mary’s potential than current well-being.
Thankfully, the sum of Gifted is much better than tonal shakiness and camera wobbling. This is a story about outcast fears, necessary sacrifice and loving with every ounce. Court bickering moves a straight-and-narrow plot, but schoolyard asides handle issues from single fathering to adolescent acceptance. Mary’s worrisome outlook on public education stems from abandonment, while Frank holds back the tiniest flame that burns for a life he could have had. Evelyn’s introduction puts out these fires with gasoline, but still remains impassioned as blood relatives fight over a child who both deeply care for (in their own ways). There are so many layers Webb must slice through, but the deeper he gets, the more softness he exposes. Complication ends up unraveling an entire scroll’s worth of feelings, binding together a sweet, selfless tribute to unconventional families of every walk.
Then there’s Miss Grace. Snarky, whip-smart, mature, so-adorably-intelligent little Mckenna Grace. More on-screen personality bursts from Evans’ miniature co-star than some adult performers can only dream of ever displaying. She elevates any supporting character. Octavia Spencer’s boisterous karaoke duo with Mary’s fully-charged dancing queen is the definition of joy. Jenny Slate’s incredulous looks as Mary’s teacher allude to how impressive the young girl’s math skills truly are. A one-eyed, orange cat named Fred is loved for his signifying individuality. Evans plays overwhelmed, compassionate and rough-around-the-edges with quippy smarts (ex-BU assistant professor), but it’s Grace who grounds every scene with an unshakable honesty. It’s like she plays on a jungle gym made from your heartstrings, pulling ever-so-gently as she swings around with philosophical curiosity.
Marc Webb’s Gifted isn’t a genre definer, but we’re given a family dynamic that’s not often explored. Maybe not the legal battles, but a bright adolescent girl who fights against foster-home futures while split between two lifestyle ideologies. Tom Flynn’s tale feels longer than its 101-minute running time (middle beats stretch somewhat thin), but Mckenna Grace always brings us back with a golden beam of sunshine-y goodness. Maybe it’s a glance, or her monkey-like climbing, or some epic side-eye – but whatever it is, we’re snapped back into hypnosis. It’s the only thing that fights against more generic Hallmark plotting, and helps win the battle with a warm, comforting embrace.
Gifted may be bogged down by some generic dramatic beats, but young Mckenna Grace is the beam of sunshine that keeps us from losing faith.