Familiarity isn’t automatically a crime when it comes to creating a film, as long as there’s something authentic that comes through. With Gifted, director Marc Webb tells a story that’s been done before – a family torn apart by different sides with different plans for the future – but thanks to a strong ensemble and a heart that feels true, it works better than it should.

Frank (Chris Evans) works as a boat mechanic in Florida while raising his seven-year-old niece Mary (McKenna Grace). He’s homeschooled her, but decides to enroll her in the local elementary school so she can learn to socialize with other kids. The school quickly learns, though, that Mary is a mathematical genius. When Frank refuses to enroll her in a gifted school, Frank’s mother (and Mary’s grandmother) Evelyn resurfaces in their lives to apply pressure – and a legal threat – so that Mary can follow in the footsteps of her equally intelligent mother.

In most versions of this story, the film would choose to take Frank’s side over Evelyn’s without question, and to be fair, Frank does have the edge over Evelyn here. He wants to ensure that Mary has as normal of a childhood as possible, in part because of her mother’s suicide. But Evelyn’s argument for Mary to embrace her potential is given, if not equal weight, enough to bring things closer into balance. When Mary is fully engaged with her potential, it’s hard to argue that she shouldn’t be more challenged in this way.

The film is aided tremendously by its performers, with special attention to Grace’s performance. It would be easy to make Mary simply adorable, and Grace can do that, but the film works best when it shows that Mary can easily be a difficult child too, and that it’s sometimes exacerbated by the very things that make her special. Evans and Duncan also do great work to show that, in spite of their estrangement, there’s still some love for each other that exists.

Webb had one of my favorite film debuts in recent memory with (500) Days of Summer, and after seeing him bend to the will of a franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it’s good to see him back on a smaller picture. The character work that he showed with his debut, and the most identifiably Webb-driven aspect of his Spider-Man films, remains intact here, and it makes what could be a forgettable film some much-needed heart.

Gifted • Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material) • Runtime: 101 minutes • Genre: Drama • Cast: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsey Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer • Director: Marc Webb • Writer: Tom Flynn • Distributor: Fox Searchlight

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