RATING |

The first thing you see in Gifted is a young girl dressed for her first day at a new school, and she's not happy about her frilly, red dress.

"I look like a Disney character!"

It's a pointed joke that pokes through the fourth wall -- she's saying this to Chris Evans, otherwise known Captain America, downsized in Gifted to a guy who works for other captains.

He's Frank, a boatyard mechanic who becomes a de facto father when his single-mom sister dies, assigning him care of her daughter Mary (McKenna Grace). It's a lot for bachelor Frank to handle, and there are complicating factors; the girl shares her mother's rare genius for mathematics.

Frank's sister felt this "gift" harmed her as much as helped her. She attended special schools that placed her in an arena with other tiger-mommed prodigies, and forged her intellectual talent at the expense of her development as a person.

Her dying wish: Reverse these priorities for Mary. Mainstream schools, a childhood full of friends. And so we find Frank raising Mary in his little, blue bungalow in a Florida backwater, with generous help from a kindly neighbor (Octavia Spencer).

At school, though, there is no hiding Mary's extraordinary intelligence. Her  teacher (Jenny Slate) spots it right away and follows her instinct (along with school administrators') to steer Mary into a more challenging curriculum.

The educators are puzzled by Frank's hostility to this, setting up a conflict that escalates when his mother (Lindsay Duncan) learns of the situation, and starts custody proceedings that threaten -- in Frank's mind -- to re-create the same circumstances that caused his sister so much distress and unhappiness.

He shares his sister's point of view. As he puts it, when you educate folks separately, give them different life experiences, you end up with "congressmen." It's a glib line, and the movie has a weakness for this (and plotting missteps), but Gifted also picks a valid cultural fight, and gets that Americans increasingly see a privileged education as the only route through a narrowing window of opportunity.

Adolescents have obviously internalized this -- a generation of maze runners reading books and watching movies about teen survival thunderdomes. Adults, too -- Big Little Lies showed an astute grasp of the way micromanaging parents turn kindergarten spats into armed conflict.

Gifted also pokes a stick in class issues. The wealthy Duncan can't hide her snobby alarm that little Mary must trundle off each day into the gaping maw of (horrors!) public school. I think the movie miscalculates in the way this is presented -- this would have worked better if Evans were an actual blue-collar guy. He's really only slumming, having left an upper-class life as some sort of half-baked act of rebellion (or as a screenwriting contrivance).

But for everything the movie does wrong (like casting Spencer in the kind of role she has outgrown), it does something right. Evans and Duncan take the soap-opera polarity of their conflict and make something interesting out of it. And a romance between Evans and Slate also has some nice moments.

Captain America is good in this. He's quiet and confident in the role, humanizes the too-slick dialogue, and seems to enjoy having a conversation with someone who is not a digital projection of a Nazi biochemist bent on destroying the world.

Evans has said as much, which has angered some Marvel geeks. But give the guy break.

Would you wear tights to work everyday if you didn't have to?

Also, two movies in four months about math-prodigy females? Progress.