Starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer
Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Language, and Some Suggestive Material
"Gifted" is something that has become all too rare: a small, character-driven drama that's actually about something. It's not going to break box office records, nor is it likely to get any Oscar attention (its release date is far too early for the notoriously ADD Academy) despite some strong performances. But it is absolutely compelling from frame one and enriching for the mind. Compare that to crap like "The Great Wall," which is just an embarrassment for all involved.
Mary (Grace) lives in rural Florida with her uncle, Frank (Evans), who is a local handyman. Frank has raised her since her mother's death shortly after she was born, and until now she has been homeschooled. Frank is determined to give Mary a shot at a normal life, so he sends her to school. His neighbor Roberta (Spencer) opposes this, as they both know what's likely to happen when she gets there. You see, Mary is a genius with the intellectual capacity of an Ivy Leaguer, which makes everyone want to send her to a school for gifted children. But Frank knows the price a child has to pay for such brilliance, and he is determined to honor his sister's wish that she be given a normal life. This puts him at odds with his estranged and domineering mother Evelyn (Duncan), who sues for custody so she can put Mary in gifted school in Boston.
The key to the success of this movie is that we have to believe that everyone has Mary's best interests at heart, and we do. Both Frank and Evelyn have valid points of view; they just differ on what is best for Mary. Frank thinks that Mary should be an average kid while Evelyn believes that a mind like hers should not be wasted. Both sides are given their due, and in a refreshing turn, Frank and Evelyn don't hate each other. Their relationship is frosty, but that's less because of the present situation and more because of what got them there years ago. They still have time to chat and joke around with each other. It's actually the lawyers who are the vicious ones.
Range isn't something I would associate with Captain America. Chris Evans has never impressed me with his acting ability, having generally relied on his everyman charm and good looks. But he's effective as the ill-equipped surrogate dad doing the best he can. He's not perfect; his issues with Evelyn make him a liability for Mary in some ways, but he manages. Lindsay Duncan excels at playing ice queens (just look at her in "Rome" or, for all it's faults, "Birdman"), while Evelyn certainly is not all warm and fuzzy (those honors go to Roberta), she's not as big of a harridan as you might think. Ex-"SNL" starlet Jenny Slate is appealing in a largely non-comic role of Bonnie, Frank's potential love interest. That she is Mary's teacher puts their actions on the wrong side of questionable, but it does lead to the biggest laugh so far this year (not that there's much competition). The sequence isn't impeccably timed, but it's good enough to get me to let out a truly explosive laugh. Finally, there's Octavia Spencer, who is a welcome presence in any movie. Her character is largely unnecessary, but few actresses do the warm/sass like her.
The real find is McKenna Grace. The young actress has been pretty busy playing parts on TV and movies, but here, she walks away with the entire movie. She easily avoids the pitfalls of playing a part like this: she's not so cute you want to strangle her (she has a temper and a foul mouth), she's not so precocious she becomes annoying (she's a smart kid, but still a kid), and she clearly understands everything she says. I'm not sure if I can safely say it's Oscar material, but it's close.
The film was directed by Marc Webb, who made "(500) Days of Summer" (unseen by me) and "The Amazing Spider-Man" and its sequel (both of which I did see...unfortunately). The film works because he allows the material to speak for itself. He doesn't try to be flashy (except for inappropriate uses of a handheld camera) or dumb down the material. This is a situation with no easy answers, or even correct ones. Webb is smart enough to know this, and as a result, it is so much more compelling and emotionally involving. I was surprised at how caught up in the film I got. The ending is awkwardly written but other than that he hits it right out of the park.
This is one of the year's best films.