Gifted
Directed by: Marc Webb
Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Lindsay Duncan
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
1 hr. 41 min.

“The precocious child,” as a character, has a long history in motion pictures. Stories about the genius, the savant, the prodigy abound. Most have been heart-tugging, some outright corny. Dear Brigitte, a James Stewart trifle from 1965, amused filmgoers with a yarn about a color-blind math whiz who had a big-boy crush on Brigitte Bardot. I don’t believe, however, that there’s been a recent film of this genre as pleasing as director Marc Webb’s Gifted.

Webb has managed to accomplish the same combination of engaging intelligence and rueful acceptance as he did with 2009’s 500 Days of Summer. Tom Flynn’s original script creates a fine vehicle for little Mckenna Grace as Mary Adler, a 7-year-old math wunderkind, who, with her one-eyed cat Fred, manages to charm us, then break our hearts to bits.

Mary has been the ward of her Uncle Frank (Chris Evans, Captain America) since the death of her mother, Diane, who was also a mathematician of genius-level acumen. The movie opens as Frank sends Mary off to public school, never easy for prodigies. Once she gets to class, it becomes obvious to her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate) that she’s special. It also becomes difficult for the moviegoer to determine which is more adorable: Mary’s blunt sarcasm and gapped smile or Slate’s facial expression when she realizes the level of Mary’s ability.

After the school’s principal finds herself on the receiving end of Mary’s sharp, way-too-frank-for-her-age tongue, she suggests that the girl transfer to a school for gifted children. When Frank declines to do so, enter his estranged, very British mother, Evelyn, played by a severe, sardonic Lindsay Duncan. Regardless of not having previously been involved in her grandchild’s life, Evelyn places herself in the path of Frank and Mary’s happiness like the Colossus of Rhodes, her pallor just as grim and gray. Almost immediately, she starts a battle for custody of the little girl, which seems more centered on her own goals than what’s good for Mary.

On Frank and Mary’s side is Slate’s Bonnie, who, predictably, puts a rush on Frank. Slate, an author as well as an actress, is impossible not to like. Also supporting the Adlers is Roberta, Frank’s landlady, played by Octavia Spencer. She has neatly parlayed the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she won for The Help into a steady stream of quality roles in quality films. Roles she’s knocked out of the park. In Gifted, Spencer is reliably good as gold. As is Duncan (Birdman), whose Evelyn is a crumpet full of strychnine, with arctic liquid coursing through her veins.

As the court fight ensues, it turns out that the relationship between Mary’s mother and her grandmother was toxic, and grew worse as Diane worked to solve a millennial math problem. Mary is truly a pawn on this chessboard of cruel, familial dysfunction. Because she’s made us smile and laugh, her tears hurt.

W.C. Fields is alleged to have warned performers, “. . . Never work with children or animals.” The truth is, he secretly admired kids, and it’s easy to tell that this cast does, too, or they’d have faded up against Grace’s Mary and her cat — an ultra-smart kid and a cat with that major imperfection.

As I’ve said, films of this type walk that tightrope, and can either take you safely across or send you tumbling without a net. Gifted is a film that can be enjoyed by all. Its wit is as vivacious as its pathos is affecting. One creative hand washes the other in that respect, and for that, anyone who despises schmaltz will be grateful. You will root for Mary and Frank, and wonder how one actually does handle a child so intellectually blessed. In that spirit, Gifted is a gift in and of itself.