Of course, you could argue that we shouldn’t attempt to read too much about a well-known director’s or actor’s life story into his/her films. Which is part of what makes Gifted a safer narrative case study. There is no direct link or basis to a true story, just the emotional and psychological questions of the narrative.
The film’s screenplay was a 2014 selection of the Black List, an annual survey by film-industry executives of their favorite undeveloped scripts. Written by Lima, Ohio native Tom Flynn, it follows the efforts of Frank (Chris Evans), a single guy struggling to raise his young niece Mary (Mckenna Grace — a kindergarten mini-me of Emma Watson), who happens to be a mathematics prodigy. Frank has retreated from the academic towers and think-tanks of Boston, settling down with Mary in Florida, where he repairs boat engines and hopes to raise the girl in as normal an environment as possible.
We come to realize that Mary’s mother was also special, a gifted mathematician destined to solve a theoretical problem and thus alter our understanding of science and technology. But she lived such a sheltered existence that she had trouble juggling this higher purpose with the greater mysteries of human interaction.
Sometime soon after giving birth to Mary, she arrived at Frank’s doorstep with her infant daughter and a precarious plan she set in motion when she decided to take her own life.
Thanks to a haunted performance by Evans, we appreciate the burden of Frank’s position. Six years later, he’s eking out a meager living, safeguarding secrets about Mary and himself. His landlord (Octavia Spencer) keeps Mary Friday nights. But his desire for anonymity doesn’t last — he and Mary attract the attention of her kindergarten teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), who detects their obvious and quite extraordinary gifts.
Gifted, under more traditional studio care, could have easily remained a sentimental tearjerker. But I would beg audiences to follow director Webb and screenwriter Flynn beneath the surface trappings.
The timely arrival of Frank’s mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), the domineering Brit who hones in with furious and righteous intent on Mary as the successor to her mother’s capabilities, provides the antagonist we’ve been waiting for. Yet, as the familial dispute between mother and son escalates into the inevitable courtroom battle, the creative team sneaks in several subtle twists that upset our expectations. Throughout the proceedings, Frank and Evelyn continue to have intimate talks, catching up on one another’s lives with some degree of genuine warmth and appreciation. Evans and Duncan remind us that these two are indeed family and that those bonds, while strained, have not been completely severed.
But the real gift of the narrative is the focus on Frank, which presents him as a bright light in his own right. Before taking over Mary’s care, Frank had an academic career and ample time to enjoy the fruits of his more personable attributes. By the time we see him, though, little of that former life and man remains; instead Frank subsists on guilt and duty. Evans richly expresses all of these facets of Frank, even redirecting our associations of him as the perfectly steadfast superhero Captain America. The toned physique is there but, in this case, it bears an impossible weight and vulnerability.
All of this transforms Frank into the ideal nurturing presence, but he’s also evolving. No studio would ever dream of creating a sequel to a movie like Gifted, but I would love to catch up with Frank a few years from now to see how this walking wound of a man with a beautiful mind of his own has grown. Maybe Evans and Foster should consider a marvelous teaming up. (Opens wide Wednesday.) (PG-13) Grade: B