As Captain America, Chris Evans is perfection. With his macho-build and All-American good looks, he fills out that super suit divinely and with gusto. Whether he’s wielding his shield or facing down a rising fascist (online or onscreen), Evans faces down bullies with openness and earnestness, wholly and wholesomely defining what we think of as “hero.” That’s a powerful persona hard to shake. So it’s up to this affable actor to remind us of his ability to transform for his craft. And in Gifted, an acerbic yet uplifting family drama, he reminds us how great a performer he is, even out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe pomp and spectacle.
For Gifted, Evans shed some muscle mass and grew a scruffy beard to slide into the role of Frank Adler, a blue-collar boat fixer and single-father to seven-year-old Mary, a smart-mouthed math prodigy (Mckenna Grace). The screenplay by Tom Flynn is quick to set up an unusual dynamic between the two. As Frank preps Mary for her first day of school, she gives him scads of attitude, sneering that her outfit—a darling red dress with a white collar—makes her look “like a Disney character.” In response he promises her a “special” breakfast, then hands her a box of Special K cereal. They goofily coo together over their one-eyed orange cat Fred (a dedicated scene-stealer with repeated gives-no-fucks reaction cutaways). And jarringly, Mary only addresses him as “Frank,” never dad. It’s soon revealed that’s because he’s actually her uncle, the one who swept Mary away from her Massachusetts roots and off to a humbler and warmer Florida existence.
As Gifted follows this angry young genius through the growing pains of trying to fit in at school, Mary’s tragic backstory is revealed through a brewing custody battle between her uncle and grandmother (a steely Lindsay Duncan), an academic described as “exacting” and “very British.” See, Mary’s mom was a math prodigy too. But the pressures to succeed—intensified by her tiger mom—pushed her to suicide when her daughter was just an infant. Frank decided it was his duty to raise his niece, so Mary could have the childhood—and hopefully happiness—her mother never did. But when word gets out about this pint-sized mathematician’s potential, the glory-seeking grandma appears like the icy queen of fairy tales, to disrupt the quaint but comfy home-life with promises of piano lessons, top-of-the-line laptops, and all the complex equations this girl could dream of.
It’s essentially Good Will Hunting meets Kramer Vs. Kramer, but with plenty of quirk in the mix to make Gifted feel refreshing instead of rehashing.
The story gets a bit messy, leaping from class room to court room, to schmaltzy scenes of bonding where tender music blares over casual conversations. But the performances here are so radiant, it’s hard to care about Gifted’s flaws. Evans is almost unrecognizable. Chucking the earnestness and guilelessness of Cap completely, he plays Frank—the local “quiet, damaged, hot guy”—as loving, but also irritable and sometimes outright angry. And understandably so! For one thing, stepping on a stray LEGO is enough to drive any decent person to curse-laden outbursts. And for another, this is a young man who chucked his life and hopes away, in dedication to his sister’s accidental bastard. Of course he occasionally gets frustrated, for both of them. But Frank clearly loves Mary, and fears deeply for her, remembering all-too-vividly how feeling like the eternal outsider pained his genius sister.
His rage is reflected in Mary, who sometimes lashes out violently at bullies and at Frank. At times this overwhelming emotion bonds them. Rather than presenting the trope of cheerful and other-worldly calm kid genius, director Marc Webb allows Mary to be a mix of brilliant, brave, happy, sad, angry and funny. She’s not some wispy symbol of second chances. She’s not a tender tool of retribution between estranged family members. She’s a fully realized little girl with unique obstacles, who’s trying desperately to understand how she fits into this world. And watching her find it is an experience both harrowing and heart-warming.
Together, Evans and Grace create an onscreen chemistry that’s not quite father-daughter, but something wilder, rawer, and nonetheless poignant. They are riveting, particularly in one simple scene where the excitable child climbs her strolling uncle like he’s a jungle gym while the two discuss the existence of God and the afterlife. Shot against a setting sun, Evans and Grace—Frank and Mary—are silhouettes separate then joined in a ludicrous series of configurations, all the while calmly discussing faith and mortality. Their shifting shapes, chaos and conversation is beautiful and plays at the core of this thoughtful and moving follow-up to Webb’s woefully overstuffed and overzealous Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Adding further texture and grace to Gifted are supporting players Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate. For her part, Spencer plays Roberta, Frank’s landlord and Mary’s best friend/baby sitter. This unlikely trio make an unusual but deeply devoted family. And while Spencer’s screen time is mostly spent nagging Frank and throwing him side-eye, she’s quick to establish Roberta as a woman with a big heart and little tolerance for bullshit. So it’s easy to see how she connects with the Adlers. Plus, we get a scene where a carefree and swaggering Spencer performs karaoke with a hyper-active child. Which is a simple and sensational treat.
And that leaves us to talk about Slate, who fought for the role of Mary’s encouraging homeroom teacher so she could establish herself as an actor, and not just the quirky comedian from Obvious Child and Marcel the Shell. In that sense, it seems like she and Evans came to the movie with similar goals. And we know from her candid and compelling interviews with Vulture, it’s in the making of this movie, where these two unexpected lovers fell for each other. Though they’ve subsequently split (and on great terms), there’s a meta joy in watching Frank and Miss Stevenson share tequila shots, personal stories, a cathartic one-night stand, and an awkward morning after. While this romance subplot plays a small part in Gifted, it’s vivid and sexy enough to be reason enough to see this modest but moving movie.
Amid so many motivations, resentments and plot, Gifted can meander a bit in its 101 minutes. But this fantastic family drama is so alive with humor, spiked with human hurt, and glowing with charm that it’s impossible to fault it for the occasional overzealousness.