Seven-year-old Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace) is a child prodigy. Her late mother, who committed suicide when Mary was just six months old, was a mathematical genius, and Mary has inherited her gift for numbers. She lives with her unmarried uncle, a self-employed boat repairman named Frank (Chris Evans), in a small Florida coastal town. Frank, acting on his sister's wishes, is raising Mary outside of the academic limelight so she can have as normal of a life as possible. He enrolls her in a local elementary school, but she, understandably, quickly gets bored being asked to solve first-grade arithmetic problems. Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), recognizes Mary's exceptional abilities and recommends that she attend a school for gifted children. But Frank refuses, even though the offer comes with a full scholarship.
Enter Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), Frank's well-heeled, high-maintenance mother, who swoops down from Boston and takes her estranged son to court in a custody battle. Evelyn wants to develop Mary's skills, regardless of her late daughter's desires or the emotional toll it will take on her granddaughter. From there, their conflict becomes a battle of wills, and you can pretty much guess how it turns out. If all of this sounds like the makings of a ho-hum TV movie, you'd be right. But what lifts Gifted out of the Hallmark realm is Tom Flynn's surprisingly witty, thoughtful script, as well as the fine performances from the film's top-tier cast. First among equals is the remarkable Mckenna Grace, who is rapidly building an impressive résumé in movies and on TV. Lots of child actors are adorable and can win your heart with a smile, but the ten-year-old Grace brings an emotional gravitas to the role that belies her years -- she's the real deal, a star in the making. Also impressive is Evans, who proves he's equally adept at portraying an emotionally strained father figure as he is a superhero like Captain America. Adding solid support, along with Slate and Duncan, is Octavia Spencer as Roberta, Frank's no-nonsense, motherly neighbor. It's a familiar role for the Oscar winner and one she could, undoubtedly, play in her sleep, but her warm, embracing presence is always welcome.
Gifted was directed by Marc Webb, whose debut feature was the much praised (500) Days of Summer. He then got sucked into helming two adequate Spider-Man flicks, and did some sturdy TV work. Here, his unfussy, straightforward direction perfectly suits a story that pulls at your heartstrings, and the result is a satisfying family drama that, while predictable, is impossible to resist.