Chris Evans, like many leading men, has a hard time escaping his own face. Marc Webb, director of The Amazing Spider-Man and (500) Days of Summer, has a hard time escaping his bubbly music video style. Gifted, Webb’s second non-superhero film and featuring the rare non-Captain Evans performance, sees them both shaking off the cobwebs to remember what character-centric filmmaking can mean.
Gifted observes a mathematical prodigy whose personality has squeezed out tact to make room for purer ability—think The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg as a first-grader. This prodigy, Mary (the toothless and able Mckenna Grace), lives with her caregiver uncle Frank (Evans) and struggles to balance continuing her studies with the impulse to roast her fellow six-year-olds for not knowing basic arithmetic. Frank knows sending her to public school may draw unwanted attention to her and to some buried family secrets—Where is Mary’s mother and why is the girl so smart in the first place?—but he also knows that if she’s ever going to exist beyond a university think tank, she needs this.
We know from the moment we meet Mary that she needs more than Frank can give her. Evans performs the character (a boat repairman with a secretly academic past) with as much rough-hewn warmth as he can, but beyond the denim and grease, Frank’s as thin as Evans is brawny. His charisma tempered by a scraggly beard and a penchant for silence, Frank’s brooding over his ill-preparation for parenting quickly becomes boring. The secretly-brilliant blue collar beer-drinker needs a more compelling differentiation from someone like the lead in Good Will Hunting to stand on his own, but he mainly exists as a nexus for the various arms of the plot.
Frank’s brief moments of fatherly bonding with Mary trump most of the film’s narrative, any overly complex drama slipping away when the two allowed some quiet moments alone. Whether they’re interrupted by the criminally underutilized Octavia Spencer (playing a landlord/nanny who barely warrants a speaking part) or romantic interest Jenny Slate (Mary’s teacher, more charming and quick than this movie’s script allows), the two are constantly thrust into turmoil beyond their potentially elegant parental relationship. Despite Mary’s grating adolescent arrogance, all these burdening side characters seem to have her best interests at heart. Everyone except her grandmother.
Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, playing a Disney villain) is cold, rich, exacting and determined to drop Mary directly into her dead mother’s footsteps. Also: Mary’s mother is dead. That fact and its circumstances are handed out like consolation prizes for making it through certain lengths of the film. Here’s a tiny twist; thanks for sticking around. Evelyn doles many of these to us as the film’s cartoonish antagonis: She appears, waving her wads of cash around, when she realizes the hard-earning Frank has roadblocked Mary’s future as a stressed-out genius. She emerges from blue-blooded academia after a violent and entertaining incident at Mary’s school that offers one of the film’s few moments of energy, then drags all the characters into a protracted custody battle intercut throughout the film.
Despite the serpentine story and lackadaisical pacing, even this legal tangent offers small pleasures. The excellent John M. Jackson, most known for his TV work, makes his judge a weary, snark-filled arbiter enlivening Frank and Evelyn’s best efforts to bog us down with family backstory and over-stuffed dialogue.
The film introduces a hospital, multiple lawyers, an MIT professor and an entire foster family to zig and zag us around when all we want (inexplicably) is to watch Frank, Mary and their one-eyed cat (yes, I know, it’s that kind of movie, if you haven’t picked it up yet) get through their daily lives. For every exchange of zingers between Evans and Grace about everything from Legos to calculus, a bizarre or stumbling foray separates characters for the purposes of capital-“D” Drama. Mary’s future, either with her grandmother or uncle, is the least interesting aspect of the film, but the one it cares most about. We care about Mary’s present. The chemistry between actors is so far beyond Gifted’s more banal plotting, saccharine acoustic score and endless barrage of “meaningful” speeches that it’s baffling why so many of the film’s events try to split up its cast into pondering, boringly lonesome scenes. Gifted is saddest when we realize, as it takes grueling and meandering scenic routes through tearjerker clichés, the pregnant potential for this to be a sharp family dramedy.
Director: Marc Webb
Writer: Tom Flynn
Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here.