The idea of “saving the cat,” one weird screenplay trick coined by Blake Snyder, is so dumb it can seem genius the first time you hear it: In order for us to sympathize with the hero, he must save a cat — or dog, or small child, or whatever — in the first act. Gifted, a movie where Captain America plays a single guardian of an adorable genius child, is already a triple-decker ice-cream cake of sympathy, but someone must have thought it needed a little more icing: In the film’s climax, Chris Evans saves not one, but three cats.
Evans plays Frank, a beer-and-T-shirt type whom one character helpfully refers to as “the damaged hot guy.” Frank is the caretaker of Mary (Mckenna Grace) the 7-year-old child of his sister, a math genius who committed suicide when Mary was still an infant. Honoring his sister’s not-quite-official wishes, Frank whisked her away from her stuffy MIT-geek milieu and settled with Mary in Florida, to live a simple but virtuous life as a normal child. But by the time we catch up to them, Mary is already turning out to be quite the prodigy herself, something that Frank is in vehement denial about. When Mary’s precocity is brought to the attention of her first-grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), and later, the school principal and child services, Frank does two things: sleep with Bonnie, and get embroiled in an ugly court battle with Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), his mother and Mary’s grandmother, who wants nothing more than to be the momager to another child genius.
Outside of its open and shameless heartstring tugging, Gifted at least sets up a compelling, multisided moral dilemma. It’s easy to side with Chris Evans, with or without the cats, especially when Frank brings up the virtues of letting “genius” children grow up alongside their non-genius peers. When kids are taught at an early age that they can’t have friendships with kids poorer or less bright than them, he says, “That’s how you get senators.” Oh, snap! (We also learn that Frank is a former philosophy professor, a trick that might come from either Snyder’s book or Road House.) Unfortunately, Gifted’s cutesy classroom scenes are not quite up to the task of digging into how Mary fits in with her classmates, and the film quickly gives way to increasingly caricatured depictions of the cold-blooded Boston campuses Evelyn takes Mary to (overcast, beige, white) and the humble, soulful duplex Frank calls home (magic hour, brilliant turquoise, Octavia Spencer lives next door.)
In the middle of all this is Mary herself, and Grace hurls herself into the role — already precocious on the page — with the kind of disarming and disturbing energy that only the best child actors can create. She’s as teeth-achingly adorable as Evans and Slate, and makes you wonder if a less cute kid would be so fretted over so intently. But director Marc Webb, whom we have most definitely seen do worse with child actors, manages her well, along with the rest of the cast, all of whom feel like they could be up for much more complexity than the script is delivering.
A third-act settlement agreement is what finally derails what has otherwise been a serviceable drama: Mary is sent to a (very nice-looking) foster home in a plot turn so irrationally cruel one can only count down the minutes to her and Frank’s inevitable reunion. Along the way Evelyn is humanized and dehumanized at least twice, and Jenny Slate all but disappears. Which is too bad; the first act of the film serves not only as a preserved-in-amber memento of her and Evans’s brief but much-obsessed-over relationship, but a serious case for her as a star with the wit and charm to revive a new generation of mainstream rom-com. When she’s discovered by Mary in a state of undress after a night with Frank, she calls herself a cab and sheepishly tells him she’s “going to jail now.” It’s the only time I laughed in the whole film. In this round of cuteness Olympics, she might just come out on top.