Chris Evans in Gifted (Wilson Webb/Film Searchlight)

 A return to the fold for (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb, Gifted is a film just as unique and smart as its characters, with an adept screenplay, powerful performances, and inventively directed.

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is the guardian to his deceased sister’s daughter, Mary (Mckenna Grace). The two are living in a one-bedroom house in a beach town in Florida, where he has raised her for the six and a half years since her mother’s suicide. Mary, like her mother, is a mathematical savant. Frank himself was once a promising philosophy scholar, but since his sister’s death, he has left that life behind so Mary can live a normal existence. However, Mary’s abilities are unavoidable as she is already reading PhD-level books at the age of seven.

Her first day of public school does not go well. Before first period is over, she proves her superiority to her teacher and even manages to insult the principal, resulting in her getting sent home. Mary’s teacher does what she can by giving Mary harder problems to work on, but it’s clear that the school simply doesn’t have the resources to help her. Even though the principal pulls strings to get Mary into an advanced school nearby, Frank fires back; he believes gifted children should not be isolated from their peers. The backstory of her mother’s suicide comes through anytime the question is brought up. Clearly his sister’s upbringing was so terrible Frank is compelled to try something different in raising Mary.

Lindsay Duncan plays Mary’s icy and estranged grandmother Evelyn, whom Frank blames for his sister’s suicide. Evelyn herself was a math whiz who never quite reached her potential. She raised her children under strict tutelage, especially Mary’s mother, whom she molded to succeed where she herself had failed, namely, the Navier–Stokes existence and smoothness problem, one of the seven (six unsolved) Millennium Prize Problems, which would make the family name go down in history. Meanwhile, Evelyn has tracked the pair down and has begun legal action to gain custody of her granddaughter.

This is Webb’s first outing since the two misfired “Spider-Man” films he directed for Sony. He seems to have wrung his hands of that, and now has refocused his talent in telling a realistic story using remarkable storytelling. Webb had been attached to this script since 2015, back when the screenplay started making buzz. Writing credits go to Tom Flynn, who hasn’t had a screenplay made into a feature since 1993, but his skill clearly hasn’t faded. The two have crafted this PG-13 family film that, while tackling some heavy subject matter (suicide, atheism, mathematics), never goes a minute without allowing the characters to breathe as normal, silly human beings.

Credit is due to Evans and Grace. They are a perfect match. Not only can they go head-to-head with smartass remarks, but they play well together, too. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s camera just loves to find ways to pair this itsy-bitsy little girl in the towering man’s arms, whether they are cuddling on the couch together or standing in silhouette before the setting sun where she climbs up his body like a chimpanzee. The physical chemistry reinforces this man’s purpose for his niece: closeness breeds compassion. The physicality, the public schooling, even the small apartment, all are designed to overcompensate for the coldness of Frank’s and his sister’s upbringing.

Mckenna Grace is the real star, giving a powerhouse performance as the gifted but ornery Mary. She can be full of zest one minute (and when she is, it’s impossible not to join her), then bitingly sardonic the next. She can also be witty and charming, and wrathful. (How refreshing to see a child hit her parent as they do in real life.) When she’s sad, it feels like the whole world is coming down around her. And through Grace’s performance, it feels like it’s coming down around us, too.

Sometimes child characters in film have only one or two emotions (maybe a primary, quirkiness; then a secondary, glum), but this dismisses how chaotic children’s behavior can actually be. Just one day for them can be an intense, operatic range of emotions. That’s important for a screenwriter to grasp when writing a film centered on a child. It’s why moments ring true, like when Frank steps on a Lego and he shouts, “Can I have my own life for one minute?!” Mary later asks if he meant it. He calmly explains to her, “Remember a month ago when I told you you couldn’t have a piano and you called me the ‘worst uncle in the world’ and wished I would die? Did you really mean that?” Gifted is full of these moments of life lesson learned.

Chris Evans as a non-superhero leading man? Now there’s something we haven’t seen in a while. I know this will sound silly, but going back to 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie, some of us saw the spark in him. Here he’s not tasked with playing someone with extraordinary abilities. Frank is smart but not as smart as Mary, at least maybe not book smart. He’s got a wisdom that his mother, Evelyn, lacks and that may actually be to the benefit of raising Mary. But high concept aside, Evans is also playing Frank as a frazzled single father. He’d rather be at a bar chasing tail than at home watching SpongeBob SquarePants. He’s sacrificing all of that for the greater good, and it shows. While clearly built up for his Captain America role, at moments he is remarkably able to transform his pretty boy face into a man who is utterly exhausted.

The rest of the cast is also pretty spectacular. Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) plays Bonnie, Mary’s first grade teacher. Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures) is Frank and Mary’s neighbor and mother figure. She takes Mary every Friday so Frank can have his one night off, and Lindsay Duncan (Birdman) makes a great villain as Evelyn. She represents the aristocratic establishment, and as any good, convincing villain, the film tips its hat to her side of the issue. In a moment that seems a definite ode to Jack Nicholson’s meltdown in A Few Good Men, Duncan absolutely unleashes, chewing up all the scenery around her. Evelyn makes a profound statement for childrearing ethics, that savants like Mary should be taken out of public schools and not be bothered by those who are average. But, as Frank points out, when you do that, you end up with congressmen. Gifted opens a conversation we should be having.

Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Tom Flynn
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 101 min. Rated PG-13
With Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, and Octavia Spencer