Remember when Chris Evans was underrated? This was back in the days of Johnny Storm and being that one guy in Sunshine, when very few people would consider his to be a career worth watching. Sure, he was charismatic, but all he could play was the party boy. He was like Ryan Reynolds without a Van Wilder to buoy him along. Then, much like Reynolds in last year’s Deadpool, Evans found his footing with Captain America and his career was off to the races. That’s all a simplistic breakdown, but the point is this: don’t count out an actor for whatever stereotype they’re relegated to. Actors act, and Chris Evans proves time and time again that he is a real actor.
Gifted is the story of Frank Adler (Evans), a boat repairman living in Florida with his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace), whom Frank took guardianship of after his mathematician sister committed suicide while Mary was still a baby. Frank and his landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer) are ostensibly Mary’s family, and make for a quirky and happy little family unit, along with Mary’s one-eyed cat Fred. When Frank sends Mary to public school for the first time, her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) realizes something Frank is already well aware of: Mary is gifted, showing all of the mathematical skills of her mother. After Frank refuses to send Mary to a prominent preparatory school, his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) arrives from Boston to challenge Frank’s custody of Mary and force her into the life Evelyn had planned for her own daughter.
Yes, that is a lot of drama, and you would not be mistaken for assuming a lot of it is focused on pulling your heartstrings by any means possible. Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man) has crafted a film that screams “look at me, I’m being sincere” with every frame. What’s most surprising is that it actually works, for the most part. Evans and Grace are incredibly charismatic and ooze familial chemistry, with the latter showing a lot of promise should Hollywood treat her right. Their banter manufactures a steady stream of laughs, giving way to an improbably dusty theater once screenwriter Tom Flynn starts upping the dramatic ante.
Flynn, whose script for Gifted made it onto the 2014 Black List, makes a lot of smart moves here. While there were two contrived moments in the last third of the film, he makes a point to not take too easy of a path through the central conflict. Evelyn, whose literal Britishness would usually mark the presence of an all-out villain, comes off as a complicated woman mired in professional and parental regrets. Her actions are those of someone who not only believes they’re doing the right thing, but might actually be the one who’s in the right. Frank, meanwhile, says and does things that suggest he could be wrong in depriving Mary of an advanced education. Of course, anyone who understands screenwriting knows that the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but looking at it from a general audience point-of-view, this is all very savvy for a mainstream drama.
The supporting cast is just as strong as the leads, even if Octavia Spencer’s typical role of funny black lady with a temper isn’t terribly inspired or even worthy of her talents at this point in her career. Jenny Slate brings some of her indie charm to the table, which took me off-guard at first, since I know her best as Mona-Lisa from Parks and Recreation. She’s charming, to the point that her inevitable awkward romance with Evans is enjoyable rather than feeling shoehorned in. Lindsay Duncan is a total pro, carefully applying years of experience to keep Evelyn just sympathetic enough, while also maintaining the cold British tone that Frank seems so wary of when she’s first mentioned. Also: special shout-out to Glenn Plummer, who plays Frank’s lawyer, and comes off as a real MVP in his scenes. This guy primarily shows up in turds like Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven and Vegas Vampires, but the man’s got a great look and real acting chops. Get on that Plummer train, Hollywood.
Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Great Wall) does his typical good job here, no doubt taking Webb’s vision and translating it note for note. There’s nothing groundbreaking visually, which is surprising until you realize that Webb probably wanted to just make a little character drama without the spectacle of 500 Days of Summer or the mind-melting complexities of a comic book blockbuster. What we get is a lot of handheld camerawork and a grainy, warm picture that shows off the Florida landscape and lived-in locations (there were no sets, according to a tweet from Webb). In a way, this is a director going back to basics and enjoying his craft, after a failed sequel that amounted to lots of hard work for a whole heckuva lot of critical drubbing.
Overall, I’d rather not spoil too much, even though I’m sure you’ll have most of the plot figured out halfway through. When I entered the theater, I was dreading this movie. It felt like an easy payday for Evans, who would be buried in saccharine monologues and painfully uninteresting stakes before coming out on top as the all-American winner in a fight for child custody. What I got instead was a good-natured drama with enough laughs and moral quandaries to keep me compelled until the credits rolled, and which bought itself enough credit with its infectious sincerity for me to overlook any shortcuts it might have taken along the way. Much like the early career of its leading man, Gifted will no doubt go down as incredibly underrated.