‘Gifted’ boasts an A+ cast, but child actor Mckenna Grace outshines the bigger names in this sweet and sentimental family saga as Mary, a precocious, alarmingly intelligent seven-year-old living with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) in a scruffy, sun-kissed corner of Florida. Mary’s mother committed suicide when she was a baby, leaving her in Frank’s care.
A few years later, he’s a single dad trying to bring up Mary as he thinks her mother would have wanted. That means swapping her home-schooling in their pastel house edged with palm trees for a real classroom and other kids her age. Mary’s outstanding mathematical abilities soon attract the attention of the local school staff – as well as Frank’s formidable mother. What follows is a messy detour into family law and a custody battle.
The question at the movie’s heart is: what’s best for Mary’s future? Should she swap her happy, laidback existence on the seafront for a strict, regimented education? Just because she’s gifted, must she be pushed to her intellectual limits at all costs? The answer is predictable and the workings are formulaic, but that doesn’t stop ‘Gifted’ messing with your tear ducts.
The performances all add up. As Frank, Evans is sweetly homespun, aeons away from his role as Marvel’s Captain America. Jenny Slate (‘Obvious Child’) is appealing as Mary’s first-grade teacher Bonnie; and Lindsay Duncan renders Mary’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn, layered and complex. Underused is Octavia Spencer who, as a strong-willed next-door neighbour, helps make up Mary’s makeshift family (alongside a one-eyed ginger cat called Fred). Even so, with warmth and wit beyond her years, it’s the little mathematical genius who shines the most. ‘Nobody likes a smart-ass,’ Mary says. How wrong she is.