Understated melodrama a cut above the rest

Frank (Chris Evans) and Mary (McKenna Grace) share a special bond in Gifted. 101 minutes, rated M

苏州美甲学校

Gifted is not your run-of-the-mill melodrama. More like an exceptional melodrama. It still plays the violin, if you get what I mean, but the violinist is skilful.

There is a long tradition in movies of sweetly sentimental stories involving an abandoned child and an older, ostensibly unsuitable guardian. One of the earliest was The Kid from 1921, in which Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp finds an abandoned baby and raises him as his own. Five years later, the authorities try to take the kid away. Jackie Coogan’s outstretched arms and tears made everybody in America cry, except for the studio heads, who just smiled.

Almost 100 years later, it’s harder to do these kinds of stories, because sexual suspicion now attaches to any story in which a grown man looks after a small child. Gifted ignores that unworthy thought.

The child here is not abandoned, except in the sense that her mother died. Diane Adler was a mathematics genius who took her own life. Her brother Frank (Chris Evans) raises her child Mary (McKenna Grace) in a small seaside community in Florida, far from that history.

They live simply in budget accommodation, because he fixes boat engines for a living, but the child is loved. Frank’s landlady Roberta (Octavia Spencer) is a surrogate grandmother, a fount of warmth and wisdom.

The trouble begins when Frank insists Mary must go to school. Until now she has been home-schooled. She may be seven and tiny, but this kid is smart, articulate and fearless. Actually she may be a genius, too, hence the title.

The new teacher, Mrs Stephenson (Jenny Slate) soon discovers her extraordinary ability. Frank refuses to let her go to a school for gifted children. He’s afraid she’ll end up unhappy like her late mother. The conflict erupts with the arrival of Evelyn Adler (Lindsay Duncan), the child’s real grandmother and the person Frank blames for his sister’s death.

Gifted lifts itself above the ordinary by the quality of the writing, specifically its dry humour. That may be the reason for the unusual casting of the wonderfully cool Duncan, British to her fingertips.

If she’s ever overplayed a scene, I haven’t seen it. Duncan brings a sense of ambition and menace to the equation. The moral danger doesn’t come from the male character, but the female. Evelyn is a child snatcher in an expensive suit.

Grace also binds the film together with her remarkable performance. Some child actors have an ability to disappear completely into a role, perhaps because they still possess a strong fantasy life.

Acting is like playing in that sense, but that’s not possible unless the child is also precociously intelligent, able to interpret and produce complex emotions without visible effort. Grace brings all that and more. All the director has to do is get out of the way and make sure the child doesn’t try to “act” the role.

Marc Webb made the quirky romance 500 Days of Summer and then two Amazing Spider-Man movies. In all of them his approach to directing is less is more. That’s useful here, because the story ratchets up by itself. Understated melodrama is almost a contradiction in terms, but that’s what this is.

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