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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Review: St. Petersburg-set 'Gifted' a charming child prodigy tale

Frank (Chris Evans, left) wants to keep his math prodigy niece, played by the talented McKenna Grace, right, in public school for a chance at a normal life. His snooty mother has other plans.
Searchlight Pictures
Published Apr. 14, 2017

I'm a sucker for movies about child prodigies: Searching for Bobby Fischer, Little Man Tate, anything about boundless young intellect unleashed, hopefully not at childhood's expense.

Marc Webb's Gifted reaches that upper percentile of prodigy flicks for about an hour until becoming a child custody movie, which isn't about the kids. A courtroom isn't the most interesting place for a movie to roost while grownups debate what's best.

Until that shift in focus, Gifted is easy to adore thanks to a disarming performance by 10-year-old Mckenna Grace as math magician Mary Adler. Grace is a natural before the camera, a kid first and actor second, seemingly a prodigy like her character. Smart children are often portrayed as withdrawn or awkward, but Grace conveys sociable intelligence, spunky without pushing it too hard. She's a talent to watch.

Give some credit for her performance to Tom Flynn's screenplay treating Mary with respect, putting believable dialogue in her mouth. Gifted is set in St. Petersburg where Flynn resides but was filmed in Georgia where production incentives are available. His sister was a child prodigy, lending some authenticity to Mary's side of the story.

Mary lives with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans), a boat mechanic with a past to unveil, who is her guardian after a tragedy to be explained along the way. Frank's snooty mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), frowns on Mary wasting her mind in public school, preferring a cloistered life of academia for a granddaughter to whom she never before paid attention.

Mary isn't keen on public school, either. Frank homeschooled her for years but now he wants her to be a kid, not always a genius. Bored with the regimented curriculum, Mary rebels against everyone except her supportive teacher Mrs. Stevenson (Jenny Slate) who'll make a convenient romantic interest for Frank — not a problem since they're on the same general page about Mary's welfare. While Gifted stays its developmental course, the movie is solid entertainment. Then meddling Evelyn begins getting more screen time and seemingly Mary less.

Webb gets good performances from everyone, particularly Evans, suggesting an acting life for him beyond Captain America. Octavia Spencer is always a pleasure to see on screen, even in just another jaunty-aunt role. I'll confess a little crush on Slate since Obvious Child. She deserves more face time on screen to match her animation voices in Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets.

"St. Petersburg" is mostly conveyed in Gifted through letterheads, signage and a "West Central Florida" Girl Scout uniform. "Pinellas County Animal Services" is the destination when pet tension is required; "Ferg's" when Frank needs a beer. TBO.com makes a cameo appearance. Local viewers will be amused.

Gifted is a pleasant movie starting off great before losing track of what is most important here. It isn't Frank and Evelyn's family feud, recounted details of shattered adult dreams, witness stand confessions or if Mrs. Stevenson will get into Frank's pants. Gifted is much better off when grownups step back and let a child lead them.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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