By: Jason Kerin
Actor Chris Evans started out down a standard career path by performing in school production and community theater as well as attending a college institute to enhance his acting talents. Despite his involvement in big box-office comic book film adaptations, Evans still has time for non-superhero movies, including the fan-favorite 2013 film Snowpiercer. Evans has even gone behind the camera with the 2014 film Before We Go, making his directorial debut and starred in the feature as well. Now, Evans begins to move beyond the role of Captain America, as Fox Searchlight Pictures and director Marc Webb present the film Gifted. Does Evans have the acting chops to make the jump to this more smaller scale indie film or will he forever be typecast as a superhero star and nothing more?
Frank Alder (Chris Evans) is a single man, working an honest job, at a local dock in a coastal Florida town. Frank’s niece Mary (McKenna Grace), is an exceptionally bright and spirited seven-year old who lives with him who Frank has raised since she was a baby after his sister Diane, a brilliant mathematician, committed suicide. Upon sending her to public school (to receive a normal school life for his niece), Mary’s teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate) quickly realizes that Mary is gifted. Seeing an opportunity for their student, the school principal recommends Mary to be transferred to a preparatory school that will nurture her highly intellect mind. Unfortunately, Frank refused, and was adamant in believing Mary should have a normal life, which prompts the school to contact Frank’s estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who shows up on Frank’s doorstep and demands custody of Mary so she can give Mary a proper education (and a more promising future). As Frank and Evelyn go to court for guardianship over Mary, Mary herself is caught in the middle, trying to figure out who she liked to live with her uncle or her grandmother?
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As an actor, I like Chris Evans and I have no problem with him for the most part. I like him the most as Steve Rogers / Captain America in the Marvel movies, but I like him in his other roles (i.e. Fantastic Four, The Losers, and Cellular). I remember seeing the trailer for Gifted many times in my “movie theater” outings. From my initial thoughts of seeing this movie, I was definitely intrigued to see it. Not just because of the story was interesting, but because it showed Chris Evans in a different “acting role”, especially just coming off of Captain America: Civil War. What did I think of this movie? Well, despite some flaws here and there, Gifted is definitely a “crowd pleaser” film that tugs on the heartstrings and was performed wonderfully by its two main leads. To me, it wasn’t anything new or original, but it was still a touching movie that I enjoyed watching.
Gifted is directed by Marc Webb, who’s previous work includes (500) Days of Summer and Amazing Spider-Man (both the 2012 one and its 2014 sequel). While I did enjoy both Amazing Spider-Man movies, the films had their fair share of problems. So, it seems that Webb moves back into his realm of a more indie film project with Gifted. To be honest, the movie could’ve gone several different ways, a bit more dramatic and heavy-handed or more lighthearted, or even more sweet and sentimental. What Webb ultimately does with the movie is that he pulls a little bit from all of these, leaning slightly towards the sentimental side. For many of the films shortcomings, Gifted does find a lot of heart, making you feel for the characters of Frank and Mary, and even for Evelyn. As a side-note, the film, while only having a budget of roughly $ 7 million, is made with enough love and care to make it look pleasing to the eye. This means that the set layouts, costumes, and camera angles are all presented quite nicely. Even the film’s score, composed by Rob Simonsen, and the film’s musical song selection are pleasing to listen, fitting the overall tone of the feature.
The film’s script, penned by Tom Flynn, keeps the narrative focus on Mary, Frank, and Evelyn, meaning that Flynn nor Webb goes off on a tangent with unnecessary sub-plots. Delving into the film’s subject matter, Gifted is a sort of mixture of a “Little Man Tate” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” for some deep (but not too deep) courtroom drama between the overall custody of Mary Adler. Going further, the film also presents an interesting “aftermovie” debate discussion on Frank’s actions with Mary’s future. Was it right for him to want to give Mary a “normal childhood” life? Was it right for him to not want Mary attending a gifted school, denying her a proper education and the intellectual potential of her future? Is it right for Evelyn to step into Mary’s life when she was never really a part of it in the first place? The movie never really clearly defines which choice was right or wrong, but we were subtly nudged towards one. However, it was still a good way to open up a topic for debate amongst viewers.
Unfortunately, Gifted has some flaws within its undertaking. Perhaps the most notable is that the movie feels formulaic. Yes, it’s a compelling plot (i.e. two people, who have the best of intentions, are fighting over guardianship of an exceptional bright child), but it’s pretty straightforward and almost fairly predictable. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just makes the cinematic journey of the feature a bit underwhelming As I said that the movie is heartwarming, there were a few times where they tried too hard to make us feel emotional. Again, this didn’t bother me (I didn’t cry), but some might call Gifted as a sappy type film. Additionally, there are a couple of tonal shift issues as Webb sometimes moves between drama and comedy too quickly, making these transitions uneven, flipping between moments of comedic levity and heartwarming drama. Lastly, there are at least one plot thread that doesn’t really get resolved by the film’s end.
Of course, as I stated in the opening paragraph, one of the big draws to see Gifted is seeing Chris Evans as one of the two main leads in the movie. Ditching his Captain America costume and shield, Evans gets himself a rugged / scruffy beard and a Floridian tan in the role of Frank. Evans does quite well in the role, having enough stage presence as a male lead and certainly has the right acting chops. Evans also does a good job in showcasing a more wider range of emotion than he as Steve Rogers in Captain America, displaying the exact amount of theatrical pathos and parental figure levity / gravitas when a scene calls for it.
Behind Evans (some might debate that she outshines Evans in the movie) is young child actress McKenna Grace as the spirited and intelligent Mary. Grace, known for her roles in several TV shows including Young and Restless, Designated Survivor, and Once Upon a Time, she does exceptionally work as Mary, proving to be the real showstopper of the picture. She’s adorable and has the right amount of brainiac smarts and childish smart ass attitude in her performance, delivering a very memorable role for the young actress. It also helps that both her and Evans share great on-screen chemistry with each other in a uncle / niece relationship. Given her performance in Gifted, I hope to see Grace in juicer roles in her career. Like her character Mary, Grace has a promising future.
The rest of characters in Gifted are more delegated to supporting players to Evans and Grace. Though there are comprised of a small group, there well-realized individual characters. Actress Lindsay Duncan, known for her roles in HBO’s TV show Rome as well as About Time and Under the Tuscan Sun, plays the role of Evelyn, Frank’s estranged mother who comes to whisk Mary away to enhance her granddaughter’s mind and keen intellect. Duncan brings gravitas to the role (maybe because she’s British), bringing her strong theatrical caliber to a role that could’ve been a one-note performance. Behind her is actress Jenny Slate, known for her roles as several animated characters in such projects as Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, and Bob’s Burgers, plays Mary’s teacher Bonnie Stevenson. Slate has a natural charming presence about her, which helps buy into her character, but, as I said above, her somewhat romantic relationship with Evan’s Frank is a bit inconclusive by the film’s end. Lastly, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer has a small side role as Frank’s outspoken neighbor Roberta. While it’s probably the smallest and least impactful role she’s played so far this year (Hidden Figures and The Shack), Spencer still delivers a quality performance that only she can bring.
How we should raise a gifted and / or bright child is the fundamental question at the center of the movie. Director Marc Webb’s newest indie drama sheds some light on this interesting parenting subject as well as delivering some solid performances, especially with Evans and Grace. While it may not be new or original, the movie still is well-crafted, handled with care, and does offer some great (yet still light) theatrical dramatic moments, making the feature feel compelling to the viewers. Overall, I liked this movie. Yes, there were no big surprises in the movie and it was a bit formulaic at times, but it was still a wholesome (and heartwarming) tale to watch. Thus, I would give my stamp of approval of this movie as being “recommended” or even as a strong choice as a rental once it is released later this year. In the end, while it may be overlooked by some, Gifted is a charming movie that tells an emotional story, a somewhat debatable question on how to raise a exceptional gifted child.
3.9 out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)
Gifted is 101 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
If interested, check out my movie blog @ Jason’s Movie Blog for my reviews of current movies.