[Screen It]

(2017) (Chris Evans, McKenna Grace) (PG-13)

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Drama: A single man fights to retain custody of his brilliant 7-year-old niece who he's raised since his sister's suicide years ago and wants to live as normal a kid's life as possible, much to the dismay of the girl's grandmother.
Frank Adler (CHRIS EVANS) is a former assistant professor turned boat repairman who lives with his 7-year-old niece, Mary (McKENNA GRACE), in a small Florida town where her best friend -- and only real friend -- is their middle-aged landlord, Roberta Taylor (OCTAVIA SPENCER). Mary's mother, a gifted mathematician, committed suicide when the girl was just an infant, and Frank has cared for the girl who turned out to have inherited her mother's high intelligence. Mary is so smart that she sees no need to go to school or interact with other kids, but Frank insists, and the girl's intelligence immediately draws the interest of her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (JENNY SLATE).

When Frank turns down the principal's offer to get Mary into a school for the gifted on a free scholarship, the girl's grandmother (and Frank's mother), Evelyn (LINDSAY DUNCAN), is eventually contacted and Frank soon finds himself facing a custody hearing. With the help of his lawyer, Greg Cullen (GLENN PLUMMER), Frank -- who wants his niece to grow up as much as possible as a normal kid -- does what he can to try to prove he can provide the best environment for the girl, all while Evelyn -- a former mathematician herself -- believes and argues she can provide a better one for Mary.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I've never personally known any such children, but I nearly always find myself both in awe and feeling horrible about super-intelligent kids who graduate from high school and then college at absurdly young ages.

On the positive side, it's great that they're smart enough not to be held back by either the curriculum or their age and can thus pursue furthering their education and smarts. But on the negative side, more often than not they're not anywhere near ready -- from a maturity, socialization and many other standpoints -- to enter the adult world.

Plus, they miss out on their childhoods (the good and the bad, both of which help one grow into a well-adjusted person). Sadly, many end up with all sorts of problems later in life due to the far too rapid ascension into being something they weren't properly prepared to be.

That's the underlying theme running through "Gifted," a decent little film about a young girl who's super smart and her guardian uncle who's seen firsthand what sort of damage the handling of brilliance can do to kids and doesn't want that to happen to her.

The pic stars Chris Evans who's made a name for himself playing a character who routinely protects others from any number of perils (as "Captain America"). Here, he finds himself as the reluctant hero who must fend off those, including his own mother (Lindsay Duncan) who he doesn't believe has the best interest in mind for young Mary (an absolutely terrific McKenna Grace, all of 11-years-old).

So, what screenwriter Tom Flynn delivers is a combo sort of film about a child prodigy (much like Matt Damon's character in "Good Will Hunting" she's a math wiz) and a custody battle over her. But the latter doesn't involve her divorcing parents (it can't as the father did nothing more than impregnate the mother who ultimately took her own life when the girl was just an infant).

Instead, it's the grandmother who thinks Frank is raising Mary in substandard conditions in Florida while also holding back the girl's advancement to higher learning. A former mathematician herself, Evelyn believes her granddaughter can follow in the footsteps of her daughter (Mary's mother) and possibly solve the Navier-Stokes problem (dealing with fluid mechanics). It doesn't help that those battling over the girl had a falling out years ago and remain estranged.

And thus the film -- as directed by Marc Webb (who made the terrific "500 Days of Summer") plays out in a fairly straightforward way where the two opponents have valid points to their arguments, as well as some doubts about whether they're actually right. I always appreciate movies that feature some degree of grayness in its characters, and that works well here.

As does the chemistry amongst all of the characters. Evans and Grace create a believable uncle-niece bond that never feels cloying, forced or artificial, and thus makes us root for them to succeed in whatever will best serve them. Octavia Spencer (as Frank's landlord and Mary's best friend -- due to her not really liking kids her age) and Jenny Slate (as the girl's teacher who grows sweet on Frank and vice-versa) deliver solid supporting performances.

Although it might not have the brilliant dialogue of "Good Will Hunting" or the same degree of emotional stress and heartbreak of the likes of "Kramer vs. Kramer" and other child custody dramas, most everything about this offering works. And while it's nice to see Evans once again in a part that doesn't involve a superhero shield, it's young Grace who steals the show. Like the title, she's seemingly quite gifted and it will be interesting to see how far she goes in the industry. Let's just hope she isn't pushed too hard and is still allowed to be a kid and enjoy childhood. "Gifted" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 15, 2017 / Posted April 7, 2017

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