If you haven't heard of the young actress Mckenna Grace yet, you will. She is the talented, vibrant, 10-year-old star of the new drama "Gifted" (in theaters today, Wednesday, April 12). Her presence and performance alone lifts the film into watchable territory, despite its numerous faults and cliches.
Grace stars as 8-year-old prodigy, Mary. Up to this point in her life, she has been home-schooled by her Uncle Frank (Captain American himself, Chris Evans). Like Mary's mother before her, she is an absolute mathematics genius, a child who is way smarter than anyone in the room, especially her peers. Frank though, insists on keeping her in a "normal" public school and longs for her to be a regular kid...his sister, Mary's mom, never was given the chance by their controlling mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Mary's mother committed suicide and was deeply troubled and Frank has made it his life's mission to make sure that Mary doesn't follow in her mother's footsteps.
But Evelyn shows up and has plans to fight for custody of young Mary. She wants Mary to be placed in a gifted program and to continue working on the once-thought-impossible mathematical theory that her mother had been working on at the time of her death. Frank, with the help of Mary's caring public school teacher (Jenny Slate) and neighbor (Octavia Spencer), decides to fight Evelyn in court with the fate of the child's future hanging in the balance.
The thin script by first-time feature-film screenwriter Tom Flynn is enhanced by the strong performances and the "gifted" direction from Marc Webb. Webb - the director responsible for the more down-to-Earth "The Amazing Spider-Man" 1 and 2, as well as the incredibly infectious "500 Days of Summer" - shoots "Gifted" in a gritty, hand-held style that gives the film a rough, indy feel...despite the fact that much of the material is flat and polished. Jenny Slate is thought of as a comedian, but as she showed in her previous film "Obvious Child," she is a very under-rated dramatic actor. And Chris Evans as a gruff and handsome "single dad" is effective as well.
All of the characters though (save Mary) are one-dimensional cliches, and the story's structure is somewhat tired and traditional. Yes Evans, Slate and Duncan all give good performances, but they're all playing one-note characters. As the story devolves into a courtroom drama, you'd think that this tale might have been a better fit on cable.
But Mckenna Grace comes to the rescue. She is a tough, endearing little girl who is well on her way to household-name status. She is the emotional heart of the film and makes everything worth it. Her on-screen chemistry with Chris Evans will draw you in and make you invested in young Mary's story. And even when all of life's problems are wrapped up over the span of the movie, you'll remember Grace's performance and will probably be moved to look her up once the credits roll.
"Gifted" isn't as special a movie as its main character, but like Mary, Mckenna Grace is at the top of her class.
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Lindsay Duncan
Directed by Marc Webb ("The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "500 Days of Summer")
This movie open everywhere Wednesday, April 12, 2017 (check for showtimes).