A PRECOCIOUS six-year-old girl with a beautiful mind is the glittering prize of an acrimonious custody battle in Marc Webb’s deeply moving drama.

Penned in broad strokes by screenwriter Tom Flynn, Gifted overcomes a formulaic structure to deliver hefty emotional wallops, and provides buff leading man Chris Evans with a meaty dramatic role to test his acting mettle rather than his bulging biceps.

Webb’s film is laden with delightful surprises, including a stellar performance from 10-year-old Mckenna Grace in the pivotal role of a quick-witted mathematical prodigy, who is sassy beyond her years.

On-screen rapport between Evans and Grace has the ease and familiarity of kin, and when the floodgates open in the film’s second half, both actors let the tears flow naturally and break our hearts in the process.

Admittedly, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is poorly served in a perfunctory supporting role and a subplot involving a one-eyed pet cat veers dangerously close to mawkishness.

Thankfully, director Webb nimbly avoids each potentially fatal pitfall without sacrificing compassion for his flawed characters. Florida boat repairman Frank Adler (Evans) home schools his cherubic niece Mary (Grace), who inherited her passion for algebra from her late mother.

Frank feeds the child’s insatiable hunger for knowledge but he also wants her to have a normal upbringing, full of laughter. Against the advice of worrywart neighbour Roberta (Spencer), Frank enrols Mary in first grade of the local school, where the little girl dazzles her form teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) by performing complex multiplications in her head.

The school’s principal (Elizabeth Marvel) takes an active interest and is dumbfounded when Frank refuses a full scholarship for Mary to a nearby school for gifted children. Soon after, Mary’s maternal grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) materialises in Florida to stake a claim to the child in the court of Judge Edward Nichols (John M Jackson).

Gifted is a heartfelt ode to sacrifice that succeeds despite its occasional reliance on cliches. A romantic dalliance involving Frank and Mary’s teacher is sensibly kept on the backburner as the heartbreak of the court case swells and we clamour in the dark for tissues.

RATING: 7/10