Evans tests his acting mettle in heartfelt tale of sacrifice
A precocious six-year-old girl with a beautiful mind is the glittering prize of an acrimonious custody battle in Marc Webb's deeply moving drama.
Penned in broad strokes by screenwriter Tom Flynn, Gifted overcomes a formulaic structure to deliver hefty emotional wallops, and provides buff leading man Chris Evans with a meaty dramatic role to test his acting mettle rather than his bulging biceps.
Webb's film is laden with delightful surprises, including a stellar performance from 10-year-old Mckenna Grace in the pivotal role of a quick-witted mathematical prodigy, who is sassy beyond her years.
She deftly eschews winsomeness to capture the frustrations of her wunderkind, who is painfully aware that she towers above her peers and some of the teachers, who are supposedly shepherding her to brighter academic horizons.
On-screen rapport between Evans and Grace has the ease and familiarity of kin, and when the floodgates open in the film's second half, both actors let the tears flow naturally and break our hearts in the process.
Admittedly, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is poorly served in a perfunctory supporting role and a subplot involving a one-eyed pet cat veers dangerously close to mawkishness. Thankfully, director Webb nimbly avoids each potentially fatal pitfall without sacrificing compassion for his flawed characters.
Florida boat repairman Frank Adler (Evans) home schools his cherubic niece Mary (Grace), who inherited her passion for algebra from her late mother.
Frank feeds the child's insatiable hunger for knowledge but also jealously guards Mary's playtime.
He wants her to have a normal upbringing, full of laughter.
Against the advice of worrywart neighbour Roberta (Spencer), Frank enrols Mary in first grade of the local school, where the little girl dazzles her form teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) by performing complex multiplications in her head.
The school's principal (Elizabeth Marvel) takes an active interest and is dumbfounded when Frank refuses a full scholarship for Mary to a nearby school for gifted children.
'Never get on the bad side of small-minded people with a little authority,' warns Roberta.
Soon after, Mary's maternal grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) materialises in Florida to stake a claim to the child in the court of Judge Edward Nichols (John M Jackson).
While Frank and Evelyn trade verbal blows through their lawyers, Mary makes clear her unerring devotion to Frank: 'He wanted me before he knew I was smart'.
Gifted is a heartfelt ode to sacrifice that succeeds despite its occasional reliance on cliches.
The dynamic double-act of Evans and Grace are ably supported by Duncan as a steely matriarch, who believes she knows best but has much to learn, like her spunky granddaughter.
A romantic dalliance involving Frank and Mary's teacher is sensibly kept on the backburner as the heartbreak of the court case swells and we clamour in the dark for tissues.