By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Cinema has tackled the drama of a child custody battle for decades now. As this type of case is rather common in reality, filmmakers have used this scenario and its variations multiple times with results ranging from excellent to melodramatic. Writer Tom Flynn and director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) now have the latest foray into family courtroom drama. Starring Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer, Gifted brings a different angle to custody battle, but has trouble avoiding some of the usual tropes that often come from this kind of story. The film does have a few surprises, but in the end, plays out with a certain degree of predictability. With genuinely stellar performances from the cast, Gifted may not be as extraordinary as its lead child character, but it does have a lot of heart.
Humble blue-collar worker Frank Adler (Evans) enjoys the simple life in a small town in Florida. He barely scrapes together a living to care for his seven-year-old niece Mary (Grace). Since his sister committed suicide, Frank has served as legal guardian for Mary and tries to raise her according to his late sister’s wishes. Mary is different, though, and this previously hidden fact becomes public knowledge when she enrolls in public school for the first time. Mary is a child genius and her brilliant mind has the ability to solve mathematical equations that still baffle some of the more intelligent minds at the university level. Adamant about Mary living a normal child’s life, Frank insists that she remain at her age level of education, but Mary’s grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) has other plans for her and decides to battle Frank for her custody.
With Gifted, writer Tom Flynn and director Marc Webb tread familiar territory, but do manage to add a few unexpected twists to the story and do a great job creating genuine tension and drama. Flynn also does exceptional work in incorporating delightful humor and also offers some valuable messages about raising children and not repeating critical mistakes of the past. The movie also has the expected courtroom melodrama with some transparent outcomes and a not-so-surprising ending. The journey there is highly enjoyable and the cast offers excellent performances that help audiences through that journey.
I found it refreshing to see actor Chris Evans in a non-superhero role, as a more relatable character with stronger flaws and insecurities who occasionally makes the wrong decisions. Evans shows much more dramatic and emotional range here and proves himself as a more versatile talent. Actress Lindsey Duncan shines as the determined and conniving grandmother who insists on making her granddaughter an academic superstar. Jenny Slate is absolutely adorable as Mary’s school teacher and Frank’s love interest Bonnie Stevenson. She and Evans share a lovely romantic chemistry on screen. Octavia Spencer performs well as Mary’s neighbor and mother figure Roberta Taylor, but the real star of the movie is young actress Mckenna Grace who delivers an exceptional turn as Mary. She exudes a palpable confidence, a strong attitude, and superb comic timing in a performance that is an absolute joy to behold.
And even though the beats in this movie feel familiar, the film does have enough solid points of its own for audiences to enjoy. The mix of humor, drama and great acting make this a movie worth watching. Now, perhaps it isn’t quite worth a full-priced ticket, but it would make for an enjoyable afternoon matinee for mature families to bond over at their local theater.