(AOTN) Family stories are arguably one of the easiest niches for any filmmaker to tackle. I don’t mean the onslaught of cartoons (not made by Pixar or Laika) or family comedies that treat their audiences with obvious condescension, but the classics like Kramer vs, Kramer, Mrs. Doubtfire or even Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Quinceañera, the ones that explore how families do their best to work through life’s dilemmas and curveballs – divorce, stepparents, children’s personal issues that will shape their adult lives for better or worse – to better the lives of those who make the “family unit” up. Eight years after making his debut with (500) Days of Summer, Marc Webb returns to a more intimate form of storytelling after half a decade forming his own bond with wall crawling spider-men, resulting in Gifted, his own sweet and pretty genuine contribution to the family genre.

On the shores of coastal Florida (actually, the beaches of Tybee Island and Savannah, GA, the home of my alma mater, as the end credits revealed) lived a quiet man, a young girl and a one-eyed tabby named Fred in a colorful little . The man, Frank (Chris Evans), is a boat repairman who traded in his life as a philosophy professor to maintain boat parts while loving and caring for his deceased sister’s daughter, Mary. Played by newcomer McKenna Grace, Mary joins a list of lovably precocious adolescent girls in films who find their way into the audiences’ hearts and stays with them long after the final scene, something her male contemporaries have always struggled with this millennium. And then there’s Fred the Cat, who the audience is prone to love from the start for both being a cat and a survivor of tough times.

Frank has come to a point where he can’t give his niece the life (or education) he feels she’s owed, deciding the public school down the road is what’s best for her to be her own person. The problem is, like her mother Diane, she’s smart. Really smart. Smarter than every student and teacher in the building (possibly even the whole state) smart, especially when it comes to mathematics, but not at knowing the meaning of “ad nauseam” smart. Mary’s intellect catches the attention of her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate, The LEGO Batman Movie), while her angry defense of a classmate against a bully catches that of the principal’s (Elizabeth Marvel, True Grit).

It’s with a phone call from the inquisitive principal that the real drama is set into motion. You can’t have a family melodrama without some outside force coming to disrupt the family, usually involving a lengthy courtroom battle where long hidden scars are brought to light, and this outside force comes in the form of Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, TV’s “Sherlock”), Frank’s “very British” mother. Evelyn is a character where, right off the bat, one false move would transform her into a caricature antagonist of the wicked grandmother of Boston, but Mr. Webb and Ms. Duncan are smart enough to avoid going in that general direction; instead, they opt to slowly reveal Evelyn as a deeply flawed individual whose obsession with seeing her deceased daughter’s brilliance with proofs reach its full potential, even if in the form of a granddaughter whose intelligence surpasses her own, and the subconscious knowledge of what her wishes had on Diane’s mental deterioration has all but cut her off from the role she could have had in her son and granddaughter’s life.

The power of Gifted comes primarily from what Mr. Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn explore from this trio and their difficult decisions regarding Mary’s future, as well as Oscar nominated cinematographer’s Stuart Dryburgh’s gorgeous photography showcasing the various Georgia-as-Florida landscapes. And it ultimately wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t an actor to play Frank who could match wits, charms and depths with Ms. Duncan and Ms. Grace, something Chris Evans is more than willing to rise to the challenge on. Apart from his iconic and career-defining turn as Marvel Comics’ “star spangled man with a plan,” Mr. Evans isn’t an actor one normally takes into consideration for such a quiet and understated performance. But he empowers Frank with an endearing empathy that makes his struggles, both as a father figure and as someone all but forced to live under the shadow of a more revered sibling, deeply understandable. His scenes with Ms. Duncan sting as the relationship between a mother and son is further damaged by headstrong reservations about someone near and dear to them with little hope of a salvable future. As the equally headstrong child prodigy who propels the narrative, Ms. Grace is a talent to watch out for, deftly maneuvering a thin line that comes with a character such as Mary. Her chemistry with the entire cast, but especially Mr. Evans and Ms. Duncan, is naturalistic and darling and her handling of the scenes involving the mathematics the adults around her can’t solve are sure to give the audience a hearty laugh.

Also joining Frank, Mary, Evelyn and Fred the Cat for their exploration of long-suppressed is Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank and Mary’s spunky, yet loving neighbor and landlord. This is the kind of performance Ms. Spencer could knock out in her sleep at this point in her career, but it’s still a fun performance that reminds us why she’s one of the silver screen’s most endearing character actresses. There’s also Jenny Slate, who juggles the part of both the “flawed but loving teacher” and the “obvious romantic interest for Frank,” though Ms. Slate does a fine job of giving Bonnie enough of her own identity to transcend whatever obviousness accompanies the expectedness of a part like her’s.

By the time things post-courtroom reach an inevitable conclusion, the story takes a strange turn that reunites and allows all members of the Adler family to find solace and closure in the events that have formed their life: a mother reconciling with her creation of tragedy, an uncle doing best by what life had dealt him and a child with the power to change the world and herself. Gifted ultimately isn’t a film that will redefine the family drama genre, but it never needed to be. Its job is done by a fine ensemble and a good script that speaks to the best of peoples’ potential. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing more films like this from Mr. Webb down the line.

About the Author

William Coffey
William is a first time film blogger, full time cinema enthusiast. When he's not writing about film, he's using his time to work on a number of screenplays and various op-eds about the state of film. He currently lives in Los Angeles.