Director Marc Webb's Gifted is a film that is perpetually one major mistake from falling apart. Hinging on an adorable father-daughter-esque relationship, the film dances on the head of a pin as it constantly seems at risk of feeling cloying or emotionally manipulative. It is, however, the fact that it never winds up feeling this way that ultimately aids the movie tremendously as a whole, as it instead comes together as a beautiful small-scale drama with lovely characters and a legitimately engaging story to tell.
Based on an original screenplay by Tom Flynn, Gifted begins introducing audiences to Frank (Chris Evans) and his young niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace). While Frank is a man who enjoys the normal things in life, working as a freelance boat mechanic in Florida, Mary is actually something quite special... as the title implies. The daughter of Frank's sister, who was a mathematical genius, Mary is a tremendously intelligent young girl, and while she loves living with her devoted uncle, that situation finds itself under challenge.
Though he is a smart guy himself, Frank begins the movie realizing that Mary needs more than he can provide as a home school teacher -- and though his neighbor, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), strongly protests, he makes the decision to enroll her in public school. As you would imagine, it doesn't take long for Mary's teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), to realize that she is much further along than her peers... but it's her suggestion of a more specialized education that causes things to start unraveling. Not only is the question posed asking whether or not Frank is a fit parent, but a serious custody battle ensues when his estranged, wealthy, strict mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) arrives claiming that she is the only one with the resources to raise Mary properly.
Following a three year break, Gifted is Marc Webb's first movie since the deeply flawed Amazing Spider-Man 2, and it's impressive what removing the shackles of the studio system can do for a filmmaker. The film is much more in-line with Webb's feature directorial debut, (500) Days of Summer, and its scale and atmosphere that the filmmaker operates well. Even beyond never letting the narrative feel sappy, saccharine or false, he demonstrates a talented ear for tone (as it's frequently as funny as it is effectively heart-wrenching), and doesn't shy away from the moral complications inherent in the feature's complex central conflict. Though there's never any real question who the audience is meant to be rooting for in the story, it's the rare drama that surprisingly makes you question whether or not the protagonist is actually doing the right thing in the pursuit of their goals.
Admittedly, an important swaying factor in this situation is the film's casting, as Marc Webb made the smart choice of hiring one of the industry's most likable stars as his lead. There are few actors who can pull off earnest quite as well as Chris Evans (he is Captain America, after all), and it's an incredibly important tool utilized in the movie -- as there's a part of you that just wants Mary to stay with Frank because his heart is so sincerely in the right place. It's a performance that genuinely enhances the entire movie, and paired with a stunning turn by the young, talented Mckenna Grace, it generates some beautiful emotional moments.
Gifted isn't a film that will be rearing its head once it comes time for awards season at the end of the year, but it's a sweet, charming bit of storytelling that has something to say and says it well. It creates that sparked magic that's generated when a smart director is paired with an effective script and talented performers, and makes for a satisfying cinematic experience.