Chris Evans and “The Amazing Spider-Man” director Marc Webb ditch Marvel-scale spectacle to get back to basics with “Gifted,” the emotionally absorbing story of a grade-school math prodigy caught in a messy custody dispute. But many of the dramatic heroics come from Evans’s young costar, Mckenna Grace, whose appeal and flashes of terrific naturalism help lend the film just the sort of nontraditional-family chemistry it’s after.
Grace (TV’s “Designated Survivor”) is Mary Adler, a precocious cutie still waiting on those new front teeth to grow in, but not waiting excitedly at all for her first day of school. She’d much rather continue hanging with Frank (Evans), her uncle and guardian, around the scruffy, cozy Florida coastal bungalow they share with their one-eyed cat. Still, Frank believes his late sister would have wanted Mary to spend her days with regular kids in a regular educational setting, child genius or no. So off he sends her, despite her protests, his own misgivings, and warnings from their affectionately bossy neighbor (Octavia Spencer) that they’re headed for big problems.
Neighbor lady’s instincts are spot on, as Mary’s intellectual gifts quickly draw attention at school, much of it unwanted. Her fascinated teacher (likably authentic Jenny Slate, Evans’s real-life ex-girlfriend) means well, but the administrative machine promptly summons Frank’s semi-estranged, intellectual elitest mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), from Boston to take charge of the situation. We can sense the forced diagnostic trip up to MIT in Mary’s immediate future, if not the full extent of the legal fight Frank is dragged into by achievement-fixated Evelyn.
The courtroom scenes feel like a case of the film underestimating its own dramatic strength. No need for over-the-top plaintiff lawyering when we’ve got diversions such as Frank and Evelyn’s intriguingly civilized ability to compartmentalize feuding from conversing. Evans and Duncan’s deft performances also make it redundant to hear straight-from-the-script character IDs: We definitely get that he’s the “quiet, damaged hot guy” and she’s “exacting, uncompromising.”
You may find yourself wishing that Webb (“500 Days of Summer”) would just power through court. We’d gladly watch more of Grace and Evans silhouetted against the sunset, their connection evident in his indulgent posing as her makeshift jungle gym. Or Grace and Spencer joyfully belting out a home-karaoke cover of the Cher-Tina Turner duet (who remembered?) “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Or even just the way that child and guardian address each other — “Frank?” “Mary?” — with a mock gravity that couldn’t be more charming. Now that’s chemistry.
Directed by Marc Webb. Written by Tom Flynn. Starring Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 101 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, language, some suggestive material).