At a time when every second movie seems to feature caped crusaders, you can be forgiven for thinking Gifted might fit the usual bill. Captain America aka Chris Evans leads the cast, The Amazing Spider-Man's Marc Webb sits in the director's chair, and, based on her off-screen interviews, Jenny Slate is the smart, spirited actress superhero we all need. Their collaboration doesn't involve spandex or fighting crime, however, but rather championing strengths and recognising truths of another kind. This precocious, kid-centric film makes no attempt to hide its efforts to tug at your heartstrings. But memorable performances and a refreshing perspective ensure that it's a winner nonetheless.
In a tale of brains rather than brawn, seven-year-old Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace) is the smartest student in her new Florida school, and her teacher (Slate) wants to do something about it. But Mary's uncle Frank (Evans) disagrees, having seen her genius mathematician mother follow a similar path only to end up taking her own life due to the pressure. When the headmistress calls in Frank's own estranged mother (Lindsay Duncan), a tug-of-war ensues over the girl's future. He insists that Mary should have a normal childhood, while his mum wants her granddaughter prodigy to realise her potential as soon as possible — regardless of the consequences.
What's the best option? With its allegiance firmly with the likeable Frank, Gifted plays up the contrasting parenting styles for drama, rather than delving too deeply into the question. And yet, as Mary gets stuck in the middle of a very predictable custody battle, the film makes a crucial case: that being normal and special aren't mutually exclusive. Don't underestimate this viewpoint, and the alternative it offers to almost every other message that movies thrust our way. Seeing a constant parade of superheroes on screen can cast everyday existence in a pretty dull light, but Gifted celebrates the idea that life and people can be both extraordinary and average, and that that is perfectly okay.
Perhaps that's how Webb approached making the film as well — sometimes it's great, sometimes it's simply good, but it comes together nicely overall. It's easy enough to see where the by-the-book plot is going, although thankfully it's all engaging enough that viewers won't really mind. The score lays the sentiment on a little too thick sometimes, and the Florida setting is given quite the sunny hue, but ultimately the film never veers into territory that could be called grating or cloying.
Still, blending all of the above together mightn't have worked as well if Gifted wasn't so superbly cast. Pay attention to young Grace, a veteran of 42 roles at the age of just 11, who makes Mary feel like the type of kid everyone can relate to — even if you don't share the same exceptional math skills. Elsewhere, Evans gives his conflicted character ample emotional range, while Slate makes her kindly teacher more than just a helpful love interest. As a feisty neighbour, Octavia Spencer mightn't have quite as much to do, but she's as warm and enjoyable as anything else the movie has to offer.