Movies centered on precocious kids are a tricky proposition for a variety of reasons, but they seldom result in films that are tolerable, much less good — and in most cases, this is due to the inherent problem of coaxing a convincing performance out of someone too young to truly know their craft. Director Marc Webb’s Gifted is an exception to this child actor rule, in that it tactfully avoids many of the shortcomings that define other films of its ilk. And yet it somehow manages to create entirely new ones for me to complain about.
For once, the child actress carrying the story is actually pretty good, though the story fails her in numerous ways that are beyond her control. McKenna Grace plays Mary Adler, a math prodigy being home-schooled by what appears to be a deadbeat dad (Chris Evans) in a Florida backwater. Because this film can’t be bothered to find any unique ideas of its own, things are predictably not what they seem. Grace embodies the detached isolation of her character with a level of skill that belies her age, but screenwriter Tom Flynn’s script never quite meets her halfway. There’s a fun sense of irony to the fact that a movie about a child being failed by her adult caregivers has been similarly let down by the filmmakers telling her story.
It turns out that Mary’s mom was also a math prodigy, her maternal grandmother was also a math prodigy, and her “dad” is really her uncle, the black sheep of the family because he chose to major in philosophy instead. Uncle/dad Frank gained custody of Mary after her mother’s suicide (the actual deadbeat dad was never in the picture) and went into a sort of self-imposed genius relocation program to protect Mary from her overbearing Grandma’s (Lindsay Duncan) thwarted mathematical aspirations. Convoluted enough for you? Rest assured, things are not improved by an ill-conceived custody battle — complete with a redundant third-act courtroom exposition dump that wastes 20 minutes on introducing exactly one relevant plot thread that, notably, is left dangling when the credits roll.
Grace has amassed an impressive list of credits for an 11-year-old, leaving one to wonder if she might not have an off-screen stage parent pushing her career along the lines of Duncan’s character in the film. And as good as she can be at times, the trouble is, Gifted is not really her film to carry. That unenviable task falls to Evans, starring as a walking cliché — a character describes him as “The Hot Troubled Guy” in one of the film’s more unintentionally self-aware lines of dialogue. Evans shows his usual proficiency for comedic timing, and Duncan is appropriately slimy as the domineering grandmother, but their conflict feels so contrived that it becomes nearly impossible to take seriously.
This is a heartwarming film almost by default, a perfect example of paint-by-numbers filmmaking that fails to adequately explore any of its character relationships deeply, favoring emotional manipulation over emotional resonance. It’s not a terrible movie, or at least it’s not actively offensive, but it feels distinctly like a collection of opportunities missed in an effort to look clever — made all the worse for the film’s straight-faced self-seriousness. This is a film in which the word “gifted” is proffered like a medical diagnosis, the protagonist’s one-eyed cat is threatened with euthanasia, and our central characters creepily stalk a hospital waiting room to see how happy expectant families are about new births — not because any of these things are narratively necessary, but because the filmmakers are desperate to make us feel something, even if it means every dirty trick in the book. My jaded grumbling aside, I screened this with my own precociously gifted young nieces, who absolutely loved it. I, on the other hand, was left wishing that a moviegoing experience could be regifted. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande