Films that deal with children who are wise beyond their years depend almost entirely on the casting of the young protagonist. Make them act too mature and the result is a character too brash to like. Keep them too childlike and their brilliance doesn’t come across.
In “Gifted,” the challenge of playing a first-grader with such a brilliant mind for mathematics that she handles complicated algorithms with the same ease her peers can add one plus one fell to Mckenna Grace. She’s a 10-year-old whose long list of credits match or surpass most actors three times her age.
McKenna makes “Gifted” as smart as it is sensitive and as touching as it is telling.
McKenna plays Mary, a 7-year-old who doesn’t want to start first grade. It’s not that she has the kind of jitters other youngsters would have, she’s going into a world where she’s light years ahead of the class. Mary’s inherited her mother’s genius for mathematics and the tedium of first grade doesn’t work for her.
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She’s being forced to go to school by her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), who inherited guardianship of Mary when his sister committed suicide. Frank wants Mary to have a “normal” life and that starts with going to public school where she can develop her social skills.
Unfortunately, Mary’s abilities draw attention and spark a return of Mary’s grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who believes Mary would be better off in an environment where she would concentrate solely on developing her brilliant mind.
Tom Flynn’s script presents valid arguments on both sides. There is merit to having Mary learn social skills, while it’s equally arguable that her math skills should be nurtured. Mary’s mother is an example of the dangers that can happen when a child’s life has no balance.
The All-American persona Evans uses to play Captain America serves him well here. He’s a man driven by a battle between his heart and head to decide what is best for Mary. He plays the role with just enough smart wit to show that there’s far more to this character than he wants to reveal.
Duncan’s a good foil, although she is forced into the role of the heavy in this family drama. She gets to play a few moments that show her character isn’t totally driven by fame and success, but the ending leaves her as the unquestionable villain.
And Octavia Spencer has settled into the comfortable role of a sage maternal figure playing the next door neighbor who helps care for Mary. The role doesn’t push Spencer, but her mere presence is like having a favorite aunt show up for Thanksgiving dinner.
The adults are good. But all the credit for making this movie work goes to Mckenna, who is just as convincing as a bratty child defying authority as she is a typical youngster showing love for her one-eyed cat. Even when she’s being defiant, there’s something sweet and innocent about the performance that makes it easy to root for her. Mckenna is a gifted actor.
There are a few moments that seem more fit for a sitcom. Do single adults really get shocked when caught after spending a night together? But overall, from strong acting to a well-crafted script, everything adds up to make “Gifted” work.
Cast: Chris Evans, Jenny Slate, Mckenna Grace
Director: Marc Webb
Length: 101 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some suggestive material)
Opens in local theaters on Wednesday, April 12
Raleigh: AMC 15. Cary: Crossroads. Durham: Southpoint. Chapel Hill: Chelsea, Silverspot.