Frank Adler (Chris Evans) raises his exceptional seven year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace, TV's 'Designated Survivor') in a coastal Florida town with the help of their landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer), but when his estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, "Birdman") learns the child is a math prodigy, the patchwork family may be torn apart in "Gifted."
Films about children traumatized by custody battles have been around since at least 1934's "Bright Eyes" starring Shirley Temple. Movies about child prodigies came later, most notably Jodie Foster's first film, 1991's "Little Man Tate." Screenwriter Tom Flynn uses the latter to propel the former for a story that may feel familiar but is still effective due to its fine cast and Mark Webb's ("(500) Days of Summer") sensitive direction. Young Mckenna Grace not only looks like Kiernan Shipka's younger sister, she exhibits the same precocious acting talent.
Frank, who freelances fixing boat motors, is one of those hunky, mysterious men whose damaged psyche draws the attention of the local ladies, but except for Friday nights, when Mary overnights with Roberta (she owns a group of rental units that resembles motel cabins), his focus is on providing a happy, normal childhood for his niece. Roberta warns Frank that putting Mary into the local school system is trouble waiting to happen and Mary is reluctant to enter an unfamiliar social environment. Mary's disdain for her teacher Bonnie's (Jenny Slate) math problems gets her attention and she wins her student over by giving her extra, college level quizzes, but when Mary stand up for a classmate, breaking a bully's nose, principal Davis (Elizabeth Marvel, 'Homeland's' President Elect) gets involved, opening a can of worms.
The film asks a difficult question - should child prodigies be placed in exclusive educational environments to nurture their genius or be allowed to have happy, normal childhoods? Legal compromise satisfies no one, least of all Mary, until Fred the one-eyed cat's imperilment reveals collusion and Frank goes into vigilante mode. Flynn's screenplay takes on myriad other subplots including the gradual revelation of a family haunted by mathematical genius, teachers' ethics, emotional education, romance, a courtroom drama and absentee fathers. Some work better than others, but he's taken care that his hereditary genius angle helps us understand his character's motivations, culminating in a moving mother/son reconciliation. The Navier-Stokes Problem proves a potent climactic tool.
Unexpected casting works well here. Evans does fine work as a man who's shifted gears in response to tragedy. His irreverent parenting style mixed with Grace's mature intellect is adorable. Duncan walks into the film as its obvious bad guy, then gradually evokes sympathy as Evelyn's past is unveiled. Jenny Slate shows range as a caring teacher wrestling with her desires. Spencer, appearing in her second math-centric film, is the perfect maternal substitute. Also notable is Glenn Plummer as Frank's local lawyer facing monied Evelyn's hired gun.
Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh ("Blackhat") shoots on film, using a pastel palette for Florida (Georgia substitutes) and neutrals for Boston set scenes (the Adler home base).
Robin did not see this film.
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