No one could begrudge Chris Evans a break from Captain America duties. You can’t safeguard the Stars and Stripes, fling that shield around, and perform all those exhausting rounds of spin-off Avenging without needing an occasional pause to take stock.
As a film to make between green-screen sessions, Gifted looks sweet and low-key, a human-scaled drama Evans could probably take his mother along to; it’s a chance to recharge those acting batteries just a little, too. Absolutely nothing about it is embarrassing or bad. But very little in it screams necessity, or suggests all the wonderful options a superhero gets to choose between on his downtime.
It’s essentially A Beautiful Young Mind with a child-custody melodrama superimposed. The key relationship, between Evans’s scruffy Florida handyman and his mathematically advanced 7-year-old niece (Mckenna Grace), is so cutesy-formulaic you spend the whole thing waiting to roll your eyes.
Evans’s dependable charisma and Grace’s defiant odd-duck quality just about keep the basic story afloat, but only just. The script, by Tom Flynn, is original, in the sense that it hasn’t been specifically adapted from a true story or anything, but not in any other sense.
Evans’ role as Frank, guardian to this girl after the suicide of his equally brilliant sister, hasn’t been given enough contours, and all Grace’s funniest moments as Mary feel like obvious writerly zings. Even though her precociousness gives Flynn theoretical carte blanche to make her sound as wise-beyond-her-years as he likes, a subtler film would have dished this stuff out a bit less relentlessly, playing up her childishness more than her rapier wit.
Directing is Marc Webb, of the Amazing Spider-Man films and (500) Days of Summer fame – the latter, of course, responsible for inducting another prodigy-moppet onto our screens in the shape of Chloë Grace Moretz.
He has an easy way with the performers, and gets good scenes from Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) as Mary’s dumbfounded new teacher, especially after she entangles herself with Frank in a one-night-stand scenario that can only end with withering sass. “Hellooo, Miss Steeeevenson,” Mary coos at her with the knowing tedium of roll-call, as she emerges towel-clad from their bathroom.
If Slate actively lifts the movie, Octavia Spencer does it a huge favour merely by showing up, in the sketchy role of a fierce babysitting trailer-park neighbour who turns into a ever-loving human barricade, fit for little in the last reel except crossing her arms to stop people getting in and out of doorways.
Lindsay Duncan, meanwhile, isn’t inspired enough as Frank’s mother – a dictatorial English academic who wants to co-opt her granddaughter’s gifts just as she did her daughter’s. She can’t make the character’s put-downs feel like they’re coming from anyone except Flynn, though the cracking of her cold reserve is well managed.
There’s a breezy, better-than-you’d-think version of Gifted only a quarter-turn away from this one, but it always falls well short of the revelatory British maths-whiz drama X+Y, and lets itself down with the intergenerational custody battle, repeatedly shoving us into hearing scenes that feel like dull, dated TV, and don’t get the best from either Duncan or Evans.
Perhaps the romance would have been a better front foot to stick with. The spark and sincerity we occasionally get are the exception to this film’s modest brand, rather than the rule, and sticking a Cap in it isn’t quite the answer.