Bless your heart, “Gifted.” I’m sure you meant well. With your plucky spirit and blatantly good intentions, you allowed director Marc Webb to finally escape his knotty, entangled studio commitments to “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies and return to the type of charming, warm-hearted character dramedies that he should’ve kept making after 2009’s delightfully melancholy “(500) Days of Summer.” Unfortunately, good intentions only rarely equal good films. Sadly, “Gifted” is no exception to the rule.
Florida-based freelance boat mechanic Frank Adler (Chris Evans) wants to raise his six-year-old niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace), right. Taking her under his wing after her mom tragically took her own life, Frank serves as her sarcastic best friend and her mindful father figure. He teaches her everything he knows, and with the help of his open-hearted next door neighbor, Roberta (a frustratingly underused Octavia Spencer), Frank does everything he can to rear Mary into the responsible, forward-thinking daughter her late mother would want her to be. But Mary isn’t like most kids. She knows about global politics and owns an orange, one-eyed cat named Fred, but that’s not merely what makes her unique. No, rather, Mary is a math prodigy, a child able to calculate with ease the kind of complicated equations and calculations that puzzle adults, let alone anyone near her age. She’s a genius, and that doesn’t go unnoticed — notably by her kindhearted math teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate).
Mary is one of the most gifted children in the world, and she shouldn’t be spending her time in any ordinary elementary school. She deserves to be taught in the gifted program, but Frank isn’t willing to provide that kind of high-level education to his niece. It’s not a money issue; she’ll receive a full scholarship. It’s a social matter. Frank has good reason to believe Mary’s mother took her own life because of the strict, rigid care provided by their uptight mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). A brilliant mathematician like her daughter, Frank’s sister was sheltered as a child, largely refusing any and all social life in favor of excelling with her astounding mathematical capabilities. The stress and depression it wrought is what ultimately led to her suicide, and Frank doesn’t want Mary to live a life that tragic. He simply wants to give her the normal, healthy, productive life she needs, and that’s why he wants to raise her through normal teaching in a regular school. But that isn’t going to be enough for Evelyn, who’ll do everything she can to put Mary under her care.
Unquestionably good-natured, yet still excruciatingly bland and deathly conventional, Webb’s newest film is an overly saccharine would-be tearjerker that lacks anything tangible in its slippery, watery execution. Admittedly, Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn aren’t aiming for complete authenticity. This is one of those movies where everyone acts as if they know they’re in a movie, and they’re cloyingly, gratingly precious about it. There’s nothing especially wrong with an earnest crowd-pleaser, but “Gifted” is often so divorced from genuine human emotions that it never feels less than phony. And even the rare affectingly naturalist sequence, like a particularly beautiful red sunset silhouette shot shared between Evans and Grace close to the beginning, are typically so few and far between that they don’t fully resonate. To put it simply, “Gifted” plays like an overbearingly schmaltzy Hallmark Channel movie with better acting and production values.
For some, “Gifted” might play as comfortable, emotionally enriching cinema, and I wish I could agree. The performances are good, and sometimes even legitimately great — especially Grace, who is simply remarkable in her difficult role. It’s a tough part to play with any semblance of believability, and that Grace can provide that in the few fleeting raw moments in “Gifted” makes you long for the better, stronger and less hammy version. Despite its mostly inauthentic execution, those performances at the forefront are usually what keep you invested, if sometimes briefly, in the story. Evans, especially, gives everything he’s got, in another attempt to prove himself away from his MCU obligations, and he brings some down-to-earth charisma you wish he could showcase more often.
“Gifted” means well, but it’s nonetheless a formulaic movie, missing the wit and charm needed to make this kind of picture add up to something truly special. [C]