Gifted: Evans, Grace charm audiences

Chemistry between performers can go a long way to help or hurt a movie.

Two actors who share good rapport and work together frequently provide an added spark that audiences pick up on, enhancing a film. Actors without chemistry often wreck well-intention projects both critically and commercially.

“Gifted,” a film that could easily have been written and produced on the Lifetime Movie Network, is a surprisingly refreshing family dramedy solely because of remarkable chemistry between “Captain America” star Chris Evans and young actress McKenna Grace.

The film follows Frank (Evans, a loner working as a boat repairman in Florida, as he bonds with and cares for his niece Mary (Grace) after the death of her mother.  First grader Mary’s mathematical wizardry solving differential equations puts her in the spotlight and in the sights of her estranged grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who seeks to farm her granddaughter out to universities and think tank groups solving impossible proofs.

Stepping outside the Marvel franchise for the first time in years in a leading performance, Evans takes to both the drama and witty banter of Tom Flynn’s script as Frank. It’s a strong change of pace for cinema’s Captain America to portray honesty and vulnerability in a realistic manner, which Evans largely succeeds in on a scene to scene basis.

Evans may be the box-office draw, but Grace is the absolute star of Gifted with her beautifully touching performance as young genius Mary. In a role that could destroy the entire picture if done poorly, Grace gives Mary an authentic, genuine heart that radiates off the screen. Her chemistry opposite Evans is remarkable and reflects a well-developed bond between the two actors that extends into the performances. It’s a wonderful turn that may remind some of a young Dakota Fanning.

Though it never falls completely over into full-fledged villainy, Duncan’s one-note turn as Mary’s fame-obsessed, stereotypically British grandmother Evelyn is perhaps the weakest part of a strong supporting cast. Her cold, callous demeanor never really takes on any layers or changes when Evelyn is addressing Mary or Frank, displaying a lack of true understanding of the character. The performance is serviceable at best and advances the story forward without adding to it in any definitive way.

Comedienne Jenny Slate takes a more serious turn as Mary’s elementary school teacher Bonnie and is largely successful supporting both Evans and Grace’s lead performances. Bonnie is a pretty thinly written part that Slate doesn’t do a lot to extend beyond the page, but the modicum of emotion she displays serves the film well.

Oscar winner Octavia Spencer also fills one of the film’s thinly written supporting roles as landlord and family friend Roberta. Like Slate’s Bonnie, there’s not much to Roberta, but Spencer’s natural charisma and warmth provides gravitas to a part desperately in need of credibility with the audience.

Director Marc Webb does an effective job of making an engaging, mostly entertaining film from start to finish. Webb begins to stumble towards the finish line the further “Gifted” strays from Evans and Grace together on screen in service of extended moments of courtroom drama. For the most part, “Gifted” is a paint-by-numbers script helmed by a director more than willing to stay within the lines cinematically.

The film’s biggest draws – its unconventional premises and two lead performers – more than hold up their end of the bargain as Frank and Mary’s adorable relationship delivers a genuinely enjoyable experience at the movies. 

Audiences intrigued by the film’s trailer should make their way to theaters, though waiting until “Gifted” hits an inevitable long run on basic cable wouldn’t be a mistake either.

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