Chris Evans takes a break from his shield-slinging Avengers gig and dons a beard for this heart-warming and down-to-Earth story of an ordinary guy trying to keep his extra-ordinary little niece from spiraling into the same pitfalls that drove his sister to suicide. Oh, did I mention his 7-year-old niece is a mathematical genius?
Evans plays Frank Adler, a boat mechanic in rural Florida that is struggling, not only to make a life for himself, but also for the child left behind by his suicidal sister. It looks like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as Frank’s math genius sister (who was this close to solving the unsolvable Navier-Stokes math problem) had a daughter, Mary (McKenna Grace), who is a math prodigy as well. But Frank wants this little girl to grow up like a kid in a regular school, not a think-tank where she’ll have no friends her age. Problem is, once she’s put in first grade, she’s socially awkward around other kids and can do math at beyond a calculus level.
Mary’s teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), recognizes her talent and wants her in a prestigious advanced school, but Frank turns down the free scholarship offered. Trouble drives up in a BMW, when Frank’s estranged and ultra-proper British mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) comes a’callin’ and demands that the child be placed (like her late daughter was) in a gifted school… whether she likes it or not! The fact that Mary even solves a complex math equation while on a visit to a Boston University proves Evelyn’s theories correct.
But just like in Kramer vs Kramer, a custody battle ensues over who is more responsible and better equipped to raise Mary (and her one-eyed pet Tabby cat, Fred). As the court case drags on, Frank and Bonnie get to know each other on a more (*ahem*) personal level, Frank’s next door neighbor, Roberta Taylor (Olivia Spencer) is fiercely against the child being taken away from Frank, and Mary just broke some kids nose for being a bully. But, the court makes their decision, and it’s not a good one: Mary is to be sent to a foster home until she’s twelve.
Frank is devastated, Mary is heart-broken, and Evelyn is up to no-good somehow in all of this. Yes, it all turns out okay in the end, but not without some last second discoveries and a hidden secret that just screams, “Oh, that was convenient!” The script, written by Tom Flynn (his second only screenplay), is superficial, yet human at the same time. What I find odd is, in this story about two people who deeply care about each other, neither Frank nor Mary ever say “I love you” to each other. Not once! Other than that, I will give major points on the courtroom action and dialogue, which is as good as it gets. Wait for Duncan’s court rant; it’s riveting and rivals Nicholson’s in A Few Good Men.
Directed by Marc Webb (both the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man reboot films), his camera work is very good, especially his signature moves; the close-up and the deep-focus, which he loves to use alot. But the real star here is young McKenna Grace and that scrunchy-pouty face she makes all the time. This ain’t no cutie-pie kid who just recites lines; you can tell there’s a thinker inside. I’m glad they found someone who can ACT instead of just look cute on camera. She holds her own next to Evans, who plays his role with a solid human grace… but never says, “I love you” to Mary and that just bugs the hell outta me.
Lost Angel (1943)
Shirley Temple may have had a lock on the musicals back in the 1940’s, but British child actress Margaret O’Brien dominated the pictures with her incredible acting chops and ability to convey SO much emotion with just a look. In one of her earliest pictures, she reprised a role she had already done twice for the Lux Radio Theater.
NYC and the height of the 40’s. There are jazz clubs, mob violence, and tucked away from city elements, the Institute of Child Psychology. Here we see a desperate women leave a baby at their doorstep. The professors there, having a ‘guinea pig” to experiment on, take the the baby themselves, calling her “Alpha”, and see if they can raise a genius. Awww, ain’t that nice? By the time she is 6-years-old, Alpha (O’Brien) can speak Chinese, play chess and the harp, knows algebra and the campaigns of Napoleon, and much more. Yeah, she’s a certified genius, and single-guy newspaper reporter Mike Regan (James Craig) is assigned to write an article about her.
During his interview with the tyke, he discovers that Alpha, while raised with loving care, has missed out on the joys of childhood. She knows nothing about magic, dragons, and giants, all tall-tales that Mike claims are all quite real! Alpha decides to investigate further and sneaks out to find Mike, leaving the institute for the first time in her life. She makes her way to his newspaper office, lying (for the first time) that she’s his daughter, and is taken to a nightclub where Mike is seeing his girlfriend, singer Katie Mallory (Marsha Hunt). Alpha takes an instant dislike to Katie because she’s jealous for the first time ever and has a crush on Mike.
An outbreak of measles back at the Institute means that Mike has to look after Alpha for a few days; not an easy thing to do when you’re a bachelor. Meanwhile, an escaped convicted murderer named Packy Roost (Keenan Wynn) shows up at Mike’s apartment to get Mike to clear his name. While Mike is off getting the evidence, Alpha and Packy become friends. Mike comes back with the proof needed AND the police, clearing Packy’s name and getting a hot scoop for his paper, too boot. Well, that’s over and it’s time for Alpha to return ‘home’ to the Institute. But there’s another problem.
When the professors come to take Alpha, she refuses to leave Mike! However Mike, unwilling and afraid to accept any responsibility, doesn’t put up a fight for her. This leaves Alpha in such a state of despondency that she refuses to eat, while Mike, guilt-ridden about his decision, gets a job transfer to Washington, DC. Fortunately, Mike has a change of heart on the train and returns to Alpha in such a joyous, heart-breaking scene, that if it doesn’t make you well up, you’re brain-dead.
In a story that begs to be remade for today, this vehicle for O’Brien was tailor made for her. Written by Angna Enters and Isobel Lennart, the screenplay is schmaltzy and cute and wastes no time in making you feel all gushy inside for the characters, especially loathsome, lonely Mike and his affection for the little girl. Hey, it was the 1940’s, they wrote ’em like that back then! Roy Rowland directed this well, knowing how to direct kids (see his bizarre The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T) which can prove problematic at times. All the actors are great and don’t play this like a kids film, even with the second act gangster scenario, which seems a little forced and played for odd tension. O’Brien is just perfect and never acts… she is SO natural, it’s scary. And when that kid cries, look out!
Tasty Tidbit: Look for a 10-year-old Robert Blake as a neighbor kid. He’ll grow up to be the star of his own TV show (Baretta), star in many movies, and then go down in notorious Hollywood history because he was charged with killing his 2nd wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, though later acquitted of the crime.