There are several ways that an adventurous director can get swallowed up by Hollywood, and the career of Marc Webb is a case in point. Eight years ago, he made “(500) Days of Summer,” a love story told out of order — it was like a relationship drama on iPod shuffle — that was so freshly done it would have been a wistful, revealing movie even if the scenes had unfolded chronologically. The film catapulted Webb onto the A-list, where he was handed the privilege of making “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014) — staggeringly unnecessary, blockbuster-by-the-numbers reboots that would have sapped the spirit of Orson Welles. So that’s one way to get swallowed. Here’s another: Webb’s new feature, “Gifted,” tells the story of a child prodigy (it costars Chris Evans from the “Captain America” films), and it’s a small-scale movie driven by dialogue and acting and emotion. So Webb, theoretically, is getting back in touch with his filmmaking roots. Except for one thing: The movie is a bit of a crock — a stacked-deck family drama that’s all bits and pieces stuck together out of a screenwriter’s handbook. It’s watchable, and Webb stages it with polish and taste, but in a larger sense he gets swallowed again.
Mary Adler, played by the avid and charming McKenna Grace, is six years old, and she’s a genius, able to solve differential equations in a millisecond, with a mind that soars over that of her child peers. Yet that’s why her uncle, Frank (Evans), a Florida boat repairman who has raised (and home-schooled) her himself, now insists on enrolling Mary in the first grade of an ultra-ordinary elementary school. He’s got his own reasons for not wanting her to be stigmatized as “special.”
On that score, he’s out of luck. The very first day of class, Mary impresses her teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), with her extraordinary skills at addition, then multiplication, then her ability to talk back like an alien who has found herself among lesser beings. This leads to Frank and Bonnie meeting up and falling for each other, even though they know the whole parent/teacher relationship thing doesn’t feel quite kosher. And it leads to a key relative swooping into the picture — Mary’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who wants the girl to be raised like the extraordinary brainiac wizard she is. Mary’s genius, you see, runs in the family. Her mother was a famous math prodigy, but at 22, shortly after Mary was born, she came to a tragic end as a result of it, and that’s where Frank stepped in. Evelyn has returned because she, too, is a mathematician, as well as a sparkling and cultivated British snob who wants the child to embrace her “superior” nature.
Precocious child actors can be annoying, especially when they’re playing kids brilliant beyond their years, but McKenna Grace, with appraising eyes, her top front teeth missing, and a sugary but brisk delivery that is never less than spontaneous, is like the Drew Barrymore of “E.T.” on speed-dial. When Mary gripes that children her age bore her, it isn’t just haughty code for how smart she is; you really feel her alienation — her sadness at being a girl apart. Yet the movie, like Jodie Foster’s similarly themed “Little Man Tate” (1991), doesn’t deepen or explore its central whiz kid’s experience. When Frank balks at the chance to place Mary (with full scholarship) at a nearby school for super-advanced students, it sets up “Gifted” as a custody battle that’s really about the issue of how Mary should be raised.
Once the movie gets into court, the hokum flies. It doesn’t really parse that Frank’s status as a guardian could be subjected to such a serious legal challenge. He’s the brother of Mary’s mother, and for close to seven years he has been a scrupulous, compassionate parental figure. (Meanwhile, Mary’s grandmother ignored her, and her biological father has never even seen her.) But there’s a trumped-up moment where it’s revealed that Frank has no health insurance. This is a screenwriter’s cheap gambit, since it contradicts Frank’s highly devoted and responsible character as it’s been presented to us. Basically, the movie has to figure out a way to separate Frank and Mary, to get our tear ducts flowing. And even then, it can’t accomplish the mission without Frank’s (contrived) help: The arrangement he suddenly agrees to is so wrong that the audience isn’t thinking “Oh, no!” so much as “Say, what?”
Chris Evans, abashed and rumpled, with a grease monkey’s can’t-be-bothered-to-shave beard, gives an engaged performance, exuding a homespun warmth we haven’t seen in the “Captain America” films. And the Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan takes the role of Evelyn the upper-crust witch, who could have been a pure villain, and poises her between the dastardly and the enlightened. Evelyn, who crushed the life out of her daughter, doesn’t want to make that mistake a second time; by the end, there’s room even for her in the family circle of love. “Gifted” wants to be an “honest” tearjerker, but it’s as plotted out as an equation on a blackboard. It’s the undergirding of formula that roots the movie in the commercial marketplace, but that may ultimately limit its appeal.