Chris Evans is known for his role as the action hero Captain America but in this movie, he plays another type of hero, an uncle taking on the challenge of raising his young, gifted niece. I hoped that his performance would be compelling and keep me engaged in this film. I walked out of the theatre, tears in my eyes, raving not about Chris Evans but his seven year old co-star and a one-eyed cat.
“Gifted” stars Chris Evans as Frank who is raising his niece 6 ½ year old Mary (McKenna Grace) who is a mathematical prodigy. As the film progresses, we learn that she takes after her mother, Frank’s sister Diane, who committed suicide. Frank is doing the best he can to parent his niece, with the help of his neighbor, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) and Mary’s one-eyed pet cat, Fred. The movie opens with Frank sending Mary to first grade at a public school so she can learn to have a normal life. It is obvious after only a short time in class that Mary is no ordinary student as her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) finds out. Jenny tries to explain to Frank but he already knows.
After an incident on the school bus, the principal gets involved, trying to convince Frank to send Mary to a special school for gifted students. When Frank digs in his heels, an internet search triggers a visit by Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother. As she exerts pressure over Frank to challenge Mary’s intellect, the pair vie over what is best for Mary, a life where she is challenged or one where she has some semblance of normality. Soon, the courts are involved. Frank must figure out whether he can provide what is best for his niece, if he truly is a good enough parent for her or if he will cede to his mother’s demands.
One of the qualities that makes this movie so dynamic and compelling is Tom Flynn’s ability to write a realistic relationship between Frank and Mary. Throughout the movie, there were small endearing moments between the two, full of humor and real honesty that played as genuine such as playing on the beach or discussions about concept of a higher power, Frank saying “We all end up together at the end.” The dialogue is part of what builds that relationship between the two as the story explores the theme of what it means to be a parent. We see this most particularly in a scene where Frank takes Roberta and Mary to the hospital without telling them why. As they wait, another family is given the announcement of the birth of a child. Frank explains that the joy in the group is how Mary was greeted. She asks who announced her birth, who came out and told the family. Frank tells her it was him. This cements the idea that you do not have to physically create a child from your own flesh to be a parent. Being a parent is about being there for your child, worrying about whether you’re making the right choices and teaching them right from wrong. This is a beautiful idea and is one of the reasons that families will love this film.
What makes this movie work so well is the relationship between Frank and Mary. And it is the chemistry between Chris Evans and McKenna Grace that truly makes that relationship shine. Surprisingly, despite being upstaged by a monocular cat and small child, Chris Evans manages to exude sincerity and caring even while his character struggles with his decisions. McKenna Grace is the true star of this movie as she effortlessly balances being a young girl with dialogue about advanced mathematics. Kudos to the casting department for finding such a ‘gifted’ young actress. She is funny, endearing and terribly real. Her interactions with Chris Evans made me laugh and cry.
It was not only the performances of the main stars that made this film a success. Octavia Spencer is a delight as Roberta, her character chiding Frank when he makes mistakes and helping be a well needed friend to an extraordinary child. I honestly wished she had been given more screen time. Lindsay Duncan manages to be both powerful and wounded as she vies for control of her granddaughter as Evelyn. Jenny Slate was sweet and lovely as Bonnie, Mary’s teacher. Her performance and interactions with Chris Evans first as Mary’s teacher and then Frank’s love interest helped create one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Fred the cat was a scene stealer in all the best ways, as he melted your heart every time he was on screen.
If there are any flaws, it’s that there is not much new to the story. While the exploration of what it means to be a parent is done well and balanced with how to give a gifted child what they need to both be healthy and well rounded, there is little that goes delving into new territory. And I wanted more of Octavia Butler. Despite that, what we are given is a solid story of a family dealing with the challenges in their lives and finding a way to give a little girl both the challenges she needs and the socializations she desires.
This is a great movie for a family to see. If you like stories about family, you will love this film. The movie is full of touching scenes and has a genuine quality to every scene. I found the story to be endearing, funny and the relationship between Frank and Mary is beautiful. The chemistry between Chris Evans and McKenna Grace is excellent. McKenna Grace was phenomenal as Mary, the perfect actress for the part. And Fred the cat stole my heart.
Rating: 4.5 stars