Film history is packed with precociously adorable children who made a splash, from Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper to Drew Barrymore and Macaulay Culkin, and they've proven a reliable way to give viewers — as the kids say these days — all the feels. But the moppet-based movie is also fraught with peril. What if cute crosses the line into irritating? What if the story builds so much around the youngster that it's hard to find anything for grown-ups? By making a young character preternaturally adult-like, are you avoiding the work of figuring out how a kid actually behaves?
Gifted, directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man) from a script by Tom Flynn, manages to dodge most of the pitfalls, largely by finding the right kid for the job. Mckenna Grace plays Mary Adler, a 7-year-old math prodigy who has never attended school and has been raised by her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) since her mother — also a brilliant mathematician — committed suicide when Mary was an infant.
Frank wants to find a way for Mary to be a normal kid, but she (unsurprisingly) struggles to fit in with children her own age when he enrolls her in first grade. Then Frank's mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) appears, meeting her granddaughter for the first time and insisting that she get the advanced tutoring to nurture her gifts, and it appears that Frank might have to fight even harder to keep Mary in that "normal" life.
If there's a major sticking point in Gifted, it's Evelyn and her role as the film's primary antagonist. A haughty academic Brit who disdains the life chosen by Frank — he repairs boat engines in South Florida — she feels like a daytime soap opera version of the manipulative doyenne, with her acidic asides about Frank's working-class living conditions. There's some potentially intriguing psychology tangled up in the character, but Flynn's script seems mostly interested in creating an exaggerated, melodramatic villain.
It's fortunate, then, that Evans is around to provide a more earthbound balance. The erstwhile Captain America deserves more credit for the soulfulness of his acting, and Gifted gives him dramatic and comedic opportunities to wrestle with Frank's uncertainties. There's also an easy chemistry in Frank's relationship with Mary's teacher (Jenny Slate), so it's a shame when Slate all but disappears from the film halfway through. Evans, however, continues to provide the steadying influence that keeps Gifted grounded, even as the narrative develops into a predictable courtroom custody battle.
The real star here, however, is Grace, who does everything right with a role that's not an easy sell. Mary could come off as obnoxiously un-kid-like, particularly in early scenes where she struggles to fit into her new classroom. But Grace brings a radiant no-front-teeth smile and surprisingly sharp comedic timing to the performance. There's just as much conviction in her giddy reaction to visiting a hospital maternity ward as there is in her wrenching despair at the prospect of being taken away from Frank.
Flynn's script isn't really prepared to dig into the potential life consequences of being singled out for "specialness," and Webb's frequent use of jittery, hand-held camerawork aims for a street-level grittiness that's just not there in the material. As family drama, on the other hand, Gifted delivers a satisfying emotional payoff. That's all thanks to a convincing interplay between Evans and Grace, who gives the kind of performance that makes you want nothing but the best for her, too. ♦