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Octavia Spencer adds big-hearted element to ‘Gifted’

April 7, 2017 GMT

Kimberly C. Roberts

Octavia Spencer is back at it again with a decent cinematic formula.

Much like her earlier, heralded role in “Hidden Figures,” Spencer’s latest movie appearance revolves around the world of mathematics. In “Gifted,” she plays Roberta Taylor, the landlady-turned-surrogate-mother to Mary Adler who is a math prodigy.

Mckenna Grace stars as Mary, a precocious 7-year-old math genius who is left in the care of her uncle, Frank Adler (Chris Evans), when his sister commits suicide. Taking an active role in the girl’s upbringing is Roberta, their pushy, but caring landlady who is not afraid to use her key to Frank’s place if she feels the situation warrants it.

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While Frank never legally adopted his niece, he is a loving and competent guardian. One day, according to his sister’s dying wish, he decides to enroll Mary, who had been home-schooled her entire life, in a proper school so that she can make friends and develop a normal life. However, Roberta warns against it, fearful that authorities will come and remove the child.

Mary gets off to a rough start at school, calling out in class and being disruptive in class because she is bored. However, her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), immediately begins to notice that the child is much more advanced than her classmates.

Roberta’s worst fears are realized when Mary comes to the aid of a timid classmate who is being bullied and is ultimately disciplined for fighting. The principal, who is unhappy with Mary’s living situation, discovers the child is indeed gifted and goes out to locate her grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Frank has been estranged from his mother for years, and it quickly becomes evident that she has a hidden agenda for Mary. A custody battle ensues, and it appears that Mary’s simple, tranquil life is about to change forever.

Grace, whose other movie outing included “Mr. Church” in 2016 with Eddie Murphy, gives a superb performance in this heartwarming story by Tom Flynn. While she is a brilliant child, she is quite headstrong, and spending all of her time with adults has made the 7-year old far too grown for her own good. She calls Roberta her “best friend,” and challenges her uncle on every point.

As Frank, Evans shares a genuine, fatherly chemistry with Grace, and truly embraces Spencer in the role of Roberta as a member of his family.

While it’s always good to see Spencer, I feel that her formidable talents were somewhat under-utilized in “Gifted,” and that the stereotypical role of Roberta could have been given to a capable veteran actress or even a complete unknown who truly needed the work.

Not as emboldened as the story line in “Hidden Figures,” the 2016 movie about a group of Black women whose math skills helped NASA accomplish its first manned space flight, the more fictional plot of “Gifted” will do as Spencer gives a heartfelt performance.

With a captivating story and a dynamic young star, “Gifted,” directed by Marc Webb, is a poignant and inspiring family drama. (Rated: PG-13)

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