The most pleasant surprise about Gifted isn’t director Marc Webb’s rebound from his two Amazing Spider-man debacles nor its ushering of another magnificent child performance into cinema history.
Okay, well, that dynamic duo is pretty remarkable, but each are aided by Tom Flynn’s script not being based on a true story.
Indeed, the tale of Mary Adler (the spectacular Mckenna Grace), a seven-year-old math prodigy who lives with her mysteriously sad sack, boat mechanic uncle Frank (Chris Evans) and one-eyed orange cat Fred in a sleepy Florida town has those rooted-in-fact trappings written all over it. Without being tethered to the experiences of a real person, however, it’s able to breathe and evolve the way good movies should.
As Frank sends Mary to public school to help her make friends her own age and establish some semblance of social skills, a plan that fiercely loyal property manager Roberta (Octavia Spencer) opposes, Gifted wastes little time in showing just how unusual Mary is for her age.
Insulted by the literal elementary nature of the math problems posed by her first grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), yet unable to reconcile that irritant with the reality of her surroundings, Mary voices her displeasure and quickly outs herself as a genius.
Bonnie and Principal Davis (Elizabeth Marvel) naturally want to send her to the nearby academically gifted school, but Frank is having nothing of it. Nicely peeling back the layers of their formerly quiet little life, he reveals that he doesn’t want Mary to end up like his sister, a talented mathematician who committed suicide when her daughter was a baby.
With such tragedy in their past, Flynn thankfully livens the mood with occasional wry humor that nonetheless barely brings forth smiles and certainly not laughter from Mary and Frank, who seem to use jokes more as a coping mechanism for not completely succumbing to depression.
Their quick wit comes even more in handy when Frank’s estranged British mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) flies down from Boston, alleging to have Mary’s best interests in mind – also known as taking her away from Frank and placing her with the professors and resources purportedly necessary to nurture her potential.
Evelyn’s infusion shifts Gifted’s focus to well-crafted courtroom scenes that excel on a dramatic level, but are loaded with plentiful examples of lawyers leading witnesses without objection from opposing council – each likely to elicit chuckles from anyone who’s watched a scripted scene unfold in that setting.
While entertaining, the chief consequence of this change in scenery is that it largely excises Bonnie from the film. A pill in the overpraised Obvious Child, Slate has since proven herself a natural for animated feature voice work (Zootopia; The Lego Batman Movie) and here unveils just how likable she can be when playing a non-abhorrent person.
An advocate for Mary and possibly a good match for Frank, Bonnie joyfully fills the film’s laughter void and her kind, bubbly presence is sorely missed during the long stretches where she disappears. In her stead, well-earned big dramatic moments arise as the family’s circumstances change and details of Frank’s past emerge, all of which are handled with minimal sappiness.
Other than a few moments of unnecessary, concentration-breaking handheld camerawork, Webb captures the saga through a sharp lens, and though he never really comes close to the level of goodness achieved on his still magnificent feature debut 500 Days of Summer, it’s a promising remedial step in that direction.
Grade: B. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse.
(Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)