Everyone involved with “Gifted” no doubt intended a sweet, affecting, sincere and, as manipulative heartwarmers go, relatively low-key affair.
But virtually no one involved appears to have remembered what human or human-adjacent behavior should feel like, scene to scene. Easier said than done. But this contrived mashup of “Proof” (earth-shaking algorithms), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (nerve-wracking custody battles) and “Little Man Tate” really isn’t much.
Screenwriter Tom Flynn (“Watch It”) sets his tale in a breezy coastal Florida town. Freelance boat mechanic Frank, played by Chris “Captain America” Evans, home-schools his niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace). The kid’s a prodigy, particularly in mathematics; her mother (Frank’s sister), now deceased, devoted her suffocating life to mathematics, at the fierce urging of Mary’s Boston grandmother (Lindsay Duncan).
Frank decides 6-year-old Mary needs friends her own age, so he enrolls her at the local public school. (Octavia Spencer struggles to activate the bleh role of Mary’s neighbor, occasional caregiver and best pal.) At school, the girl’s teacher (Jenny Slate, doing some of the least conspicuous and most effective acting of her career) realizes Mary’s exceptional gifts. She also realizes Frank’s laconic charms as the local “quiet, damaged hot guy,” as she and a female colleague refer to him.
Slate’s scenes with Evans, her former real-life romantic partner, feel easy-breathing and lived-in. Most of “Gifted” strains to catch its breath. The bulk of it deals with questions of Mary’s destiny. Should she give up life with her uncle, and their one-eyed cat, Fred, for the unknown? A dream adoptive couple appears on the scene; so does Mary’s birth father, whom she has never met. Frank blames his mother, eager to steer her granddaughter’s life, for the death of Mary’s mother. In and out of court, the story depends on matters of contrivance and abrupt revelations (Frank has no health insurance!) and narrative switchbacks owing more to convenience than character.
The director Marc Webb scored a slick popular success with “(500) Days of Summer” before moving on to a couple of “Spider-Man” pictures. Perhaps he, like Evans, was so grateful to get rid of the superhero stuff for a while that he neglected to take an honest look at the script at hand. Also, it’s a small problem but a telling one: There’s one conversational shot of Evans and Glenn Plummer (who plays Frank’s lawyer) dominated by a sudden and ridiculous hand-held camera. You can’t even hear what they’re saying. You’re too worried that “Gifted” is actually having a seizure.
Starring Chris Evans, McKenna Grace and Octavia Spencer. Directed by Marc Webb.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 41 minutes.
Bottom line: A bit of a contrived mashup of touchy-feely movies