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Heartfelt 'Gifted' succeeds with strong acting and a meaningful message

Posted April 12

"GIFTED" — 3½ stars — Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate; PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some suggestive material); in general release

“Gifted” is the moving and resonant story of a brilliant child trapped in a custody battle between two relatives.

Mary (Mckenna Grace) is a 7-year-old math prodigy who never knew her father, and whose mother committed suicide after a lifelong struggle to reconcile her own mathematic gift. Since the suicide, Mary has been living in Florida with her underachieving uncle Frank (Chris Evans), who works as a freelance boat repairman.

Frank has been following through on his sister’s wish for Mary to have a normal life, but after he places her in the local elementary school, her new teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) quickly realizes the child is out of her classmates’ league. Things get worse when Mary’s grandmother (and Frank’s mother) Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) attempts to get legal custody of her granddaughter.

Soon Mary is caught between equally loving but disagreeing family members. Frank just wants Mary to be able to be a kid, but his own circumstances — and the fact that he starts a relationship with Bonnie — leave him legally vulnerable. Evelyn manages to take Mary on a visit to a nearby university where she can see the greatness waiting for her, presuming she’s willing to follow her mother’s footsteps and dedicate her childhood — and beyond — to developing her extraordinary gift.

It’s easy to default to Frank’s side in the battle, and not just because Evans happens to play Captain America in a different well-known franchise. But Evelyn’s argument is almost equally compelling, especially when you see Mary’s wide-eyed amazement at her own potential. At times, the audience feels just as torn as Mary, and that just make the twists and turns and additional revelations of “Gifted” all the more challenging to deal with.

At the heart of the story, Grace plays her young character at just the right note. In different hands, it would be tempting to keep Mary in a strict adorable/cute mode, but director Marc Webb — who helmed the similarly thoughtful “(500) Days of Summer” — understands that the same gift that makes his subject special would also make her difficult and even unlikable at times. To her credit, Grace keeps Mary at a nice balance between cute kid and a kid who is clearly more intelligent than her peers.

Evans and Duncan also strike an important balance as they portray a relationship that, while very tense and often hurtful, still has enough of a thread of love and mutual respect to keep both characters from becoming two-dimensional. Evans’ Frank isn’t far from the wizened, down-to-earth tone he uses to such great effect as Steve Rogers, and Evelyn’s cold, determined grandmother can’t be pegged as a simple antagonist.

“Gifted” may be focused on the plight of a child genius, but the questions it raises about parenting and ambition and career will resonate well beyond its own specific context. In a world where grade inflation and early graduation and workaholics lead some to question the nature of ambition, “Gifted” will give audiences plenty to think about.

"Gifted" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material; running time: 101 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.

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