★★★☆☆ – Though predictable and uneven at times, this child-custody drama is heart wrenching in all the right ways, and features stellar performances from its two leads.
Chris Evans, oddly enough, wouldn’t have been my first choice when casting a rough around the edges, man-of-the-people uncle raising his late niece’s infant daughter, but as it turns out, he is a perfect fit for the role.
Far less blonde and groomed than when in Captain America mode, Evans portrays Frank, the now-guardian of Mary, a ‘gifted’ 7-year-old who possesses an almost supernatural ability at solving mathematical problems. But, as is the problem for many geniuses, normal life doesn’t quite appeal – Mary is disruptive and soon catches the attention of her school teacher Bonnie, played by the wonderful Jenny Slate, who is very sadly underused in the role (but more on that later).
Cue a visit from Frank’s stony English mother Evelyn (how cold and unfeeling us Brits all are!) and an oddly fought out custody battle ensues for the child, whose future is being decided between two distinct paths – a life of monetary privilege, but sheltered from the world and raised solely to explore the full extent of her capabilities, or a life of normalcy, free to be a child without the pressures of expectation weighing upon her.
This is where it gets a little ropey. Despite a dramatic courtroom battle that pulls no punches, and a set-up that suggests a bitter undercurrent to their relationship, Evelyn and Frank are civil to the point of on-and-off sentimental affection for each other. It feels uneven and at odds entirely with the context of the situation in which they are thrown together.
And then, the underlying and mostly unexplored relationship of Bonnie and Frank, which starts off promisingly, only to be all but abandoned come the final third act. Similarly, Bonnie’s character practically vanishes, a great shame considering the acting prowess possessed by Slate, and the chemistry felt between her and Evans – such great chemistry that during the making of the movie, then-married Slate even left her husband for Evans, although the two are no longer romantically involved.
It feels like an odd misstep to be so throwaway about the film’s only romantic storyline. Similarly underdeveloped is Octavia Spencer’s character Roberta, who gifts the film some of its most fist-punchingly righteous moments, yet seems to appear out of nowhere, tagging along at random and acting as a pseudo-mother/babysitter figure to Mary assuming the form of whichever the occasion calls for her to be.
But the chemistry between Evans and Mckenna Grace, who plays Mary with a deftness that defies her age, switching between steely and vulnerable at the drop of a hat, is hugely felt. The affection is clearly mutual, and its refreshing to see a positive depiction of a single-father(-figure) on screen.
It succeeds in hitting its emotional marks – a harrowing scene of abandonment nearly brought tears to this cold, dead-hearted writers eyes – and its an enjoyable, heart-melting ride whilst it lasts, but a few minor changes could have made this a far more well-rounded affair that would stick with audiences longer than it actually will.
– Thomas Marrington
Photos by Wilson Webb, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures