In recent weeks and months. Chris Evans has dropped hints that he’d like to stop playing Captain America in the near future. (I often think that interviews which ask him such questions as he’s filming a Captain America or Avengers movie, or when he’s training to get into super-soldier shape, are bound to get such a response. It’s a grueling gig, and he surely can only think about it taking a break while in the midst of it. We’ve often seen the same with Daniel Craig and James Bond.)
Evans is so good as the star-spangled Avenger that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else toting that red, white and blue shield on screen. Capturing the character’s fierce morality and natural leadership, while also bulking up his physique to superhero proportions, he’s translated Captain America from the Marvel Comics page to the big screen so well. After five films in which he’s portrayed the character (six, if you count a cameo in Thor: The Dark World), Evans has made Captain America the most popular on-screen Avenger.
Playing America’s superhero hasn’t given Evans much time to play other roles over the past six years. (Snowpiercer is a notable standout during that span.) But if he gets to mix it up and act in some smaller films, like Gifted, perhaps suiting up as Captain America won’t feel so repetitive. As Frank Adler, Evans portrays a different sort of heroic role as an uncle raising his seven-year-old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), following the death of her mother. As a single man working a blue-collar job (repairing boats for a living) to make ends meet, Frank seems in over his head in trying to raise a young girl by himself. That task seems even more formidable, considering that Mary is smarter than the average seven-year-old.
Actually, Mary is smarter than the average adult — smarter than the above-average smart adult, even. She’s a genius-level mathematician whom Frank enrolls in first grade at a local elementary school because his sister made it clear that she wanted Mary to have a normal life, to be a kid who plays games, goofs around, and has friends her own age.
Putting her in school is a big part of that, though Mary dreads it because she knows she’s far beyond the curriculum being taught at the first-grade level. Sure enough, as soon as class begins, she’s rolling her eyes at the kids being asked to do basic mathematics (1 + 1 = 2, etc.) by their teacher, Miss Stevenson (Jenny Slate). The teacher is initially amused by her brash new student who’s already learned basic arithmetic and attempts to humble her by giving her math problems better suited for a fourth-grader. Once Mary solves them easily, Miss Stevenson gives her something more complicated that she couldn’t possibly answer. But Mary figures it out in her head, and her correct answer is confirmed by a calculator.
After school, Stevenson approaches Frank to let him know that Mary might be gifted. Naturally, Frank already knows this and quickly tries to simmer down the teacher’s realization. He apologizes on Mary’s behalf for showing up the teacher in class and being disruptive. It won’t happen again; everything’s fine. She’s not a genius, she was just taught an unconventional method for solving math problems. Move along; nothing to see here.
As you might expect, Stevenson isn’t so easily deterred. How can she be when faced with this genius-level intellect who has no time or patience for the remedial classwork that her fellow seven-year-olds are only beginning to grasp. It’s practically an embarrassing experience for the teacher. She’s obviously doing her job and doing it well, yet isn’t challenging her best student at all (and maybe is being judged just a bit in the process). So Stevenson begins giving Mary much more complex assignments, and she’s happy with the challenge, even if she still finishes the assignments rather quickly. Mary appreciates the effort her teacher is putting in.
But the inevitable can only be staved off for so long. Not only is Mary smarter than anyone else at her school, she’s also more mature and emotionally developed. So when she sees a classmate being bullied by an older kid, she retaliates in his defense. (She also willingly acknowledges when someone has done something better than her, which is yet another reason why she rises to her classmate’s defense. His zoo display was better than hers, and she’s mad that the class didn’t get to see it.) Naturally, the attack gets her into trouble and is in danger of being expelled.
Frank goes to the principal’s office to argue for Mary not getting kicked out of school, but school adminstrators have something else in mind. Stevenson has explained to the principal that Mary is gifted, and there’s really nothing the school can do for a student who’s so far advanced. That leads to a generous offer: Mary needs to be put into a private school for higher learning and the school is willing to give her a scholarship to pay for the tuition Frank could never afford.
But Frank made a promise to his sister and he intends to keep it. Don’t make Mary feel like she’s different and keep her away from kids her age. The principal can’t believe what she’s hearing, which compels her to find someone else who can provide Mary with what she needs: Frank’s mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). When Evelyn shows up on Frank’s doorstep and it’s apparent that Mary has never met her before, that indicates a whole lot of backstory.
As it turns out, Mary is the latest in a line of math geniuses in their family, and Evelyn was a hard-driving mother who wanted her daughter to fulfill her potential. Eventually, it was more than Mary’s mother could handle, leading to fatal consequences. Frank doesn’t want to see Mary taken down that same path. Therein lies the central conflict of Gifted: Should a genius-level kid be allowed to have a childhood? Or is it wasting her gifts by not pushing her to fulfill her potential? Director Marc Webb (taking a step back to smaller films after two Spider-Man blockbusters) and writer Tom Flynn clearly state a preference here, but both sides have a point. Unfortunately, the story makes Evelyn a bit underhanded and villainous, making it easier to choose a path for Mary.
A movie like this might not work if the child actor isn’t appealing, but Grace is utterly charming, cute without having to push, and has good rapport with Evans on screen. Evans also shows his acting chops here as someone who once followed the path his parents set out for him and is trying to get as far away from that as possible, even if he could be doing more. He doesn’t need a star on his chest to carry a movie. If there’s one down note to the movie, it’s that Octavia Spencer is kind of wasted as Frank’s neighbor who wants Mary to be a kid and Frank to be the parent she needs. But it’s entertaining to watch her and Grace frequently needle Evans throughout the story.
This is probably going to be a rental for many movie lovers, but Gifted is a nice change of pace from the blockbusters and wacky comedy that typically populate theaters this time of year. (The summer season just keeps beginning earlier and earlier.) Perhaps best of all, it’s a family-friendly film that isn’t a cartoon, doesn’t kowtow to kids, and isn’t too sappy for adults to legitimately enjoy. It’s definitely worth your time.