Chris Evans drops the vibranium shield to flex his acting muscles in Director Marc Webb's (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man) Gifted. Written by Tom Flynn, the film is a syrupy sweet melodrama that will tug on your heartstrings like a violin. There are moments of genuine feeling that get lost in the uneven narrative. Flynn's screenplay sets up a powerful conflict that peters away feebly in the third act. That's disappointing because there was meat on the bone for a far more substantive film.
Gifted takes place in small town Central Florida. Frank (Chris Evans) is a boat repairman raising his precocious niece, Mary (McKenna Grace). Their only friend is Roberta (Octavia Spencer), a feisty neighbor who has helped rear the inquisitive and rambunctious girl. Mary's first day at school reveals her true nature to a benevolent teacher (Jenny Slate). Mary is a genius, an unparalleled math prodigy. The discovery of her abilities leads to return of Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), her formidable grandmother. Family secrets are laid bare as Frank and his mother fight for custody of Mary. He wants her to have a normal life, while his fierce mother sees a chance to recapture lost academic glory.
The primary relationship between Frank and Mary will melt you like butter. Mary, played superbly by McKenna Grace, is beyond lovable. From her missing front teeth, to her emphatic declarations, the kid is a bonafide heart stealer. Webb has multiple scenes, some quite poetic and beautifully shot, of Mary crawling all over Frank like a jungle gym. There's a deep bond between the two. It's the core of the film and set-up magnificently; which is why the legal drama and eventual conclusion is such a muddle.
I did not buy Frank's reaction to his mother's challenge. Chris Evans, known for his role as Captain America in the Marvel Movies, plays Frank as a cool customer, a man who is conflicted; but doesn't seem to be lacking resolution. He has been Mary's guardian since she was an infant. The plot has him consciously making the move to Florida to remove her from his mother's reach. It's only when the mother learns of her ability does she reenter the picture. I find it hard to believe Frank would have been so collaborative. This character should have been ferocious protecting Mary. It makes the third act unbelievable to me.
Marc Webb is very good establishing intimacy between characters. Frank and Mary are par for the course in his portfolio. The problem I have with his films is the payoff. From 500 Days of Summer to this film, he doesn't deliver a satisfactory ending. This is the thread that binds all of his work. I always feel like there's something left on the table or the resolve is too clean. Gifted has a good premise with believable characters, then just peters away into contrivance.
It's good to see Chris Evans exploring a softer, more personal story. His turn as Frank is an uneven performance, although he is tremendous with young McKenna Grace. Octavia Spencer is a mere blip on screen. Her character is instrumental to Mary, but is left unexplored. I appreciate the warmth and fuzzy feelings inspired by Gifted. From Fox Searchlight, the sum of the overall product is decidedly lacking.