Spending the better part of five years caught up in the meat-grinder gears of the superhero industrial complex has to do certain things to a director. Especially a director who started out making a handcrafted, small-scale bauble like 2009’s 500 Days of Summer. But Marc Webb has emerged from his pair of Andrew Garfield Spider-Man flicks in one piece—alive to tell the tale. Unfortunately, he should have held out for a better tale to tell.
Gifted, a return to modest-budget Hallmark-shop sentimentality for the filmmaker, is a custody battle melodrama that’s as schmaltzy as all get out. Chris Evans stars as Frank, a soft-spoken Florida boat mechanic who takes care of seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace), the adorably precocious daughter of his sister—a brainiac mathematician who committed suicide. It turns out Mary is a genius with numbers and complex theoretical math as well. On her first day of first grade, her teacher (Jenny Slate, adding some fizz to an otherwise flat part) discovers that she’s light years ahead of her classmates. Light years ahead of her, too. Mary’s principal recommends that she go to a ritzy private school for gifted children. But Frank doesn’t want that life for her. He saw how it destroyed his sister. His dilemma is: Should he push Mary to achieve her potential, or let her just be a normal, happy, well-adjusted kid who plays outside instead of sitting in her room with her nose in textbooks?
So far, so good. Or, if not good exactly, then at least not objectionable. But then Webb and the film’s screenwriter Tom Flynn decide that instead of making a pint-sized Good Will Hunting, they want to remake Kramer Vs. Kramer. Enter Mary’s estranged grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who sniffs another shot at the potential for mathematics glory that eluded her and her daughter. With her clipped, icy British accent, well-tailored clothing, she’s as one-dimensional as domestic movie villains get. Joan Crawford would have had a field day with the role. As for Duncan, if she had a mustache, she’d be twirling it. Evelyn wants to take custody away from Frank, and from there the movie sort of stalls out into a TV-movie courtroom scrum for the kid. The actors are all better than the parts that are written for them, especially Octavia Spencer as Frank’s saintly, overprotective trailer-park neighbor. (Grace is a real young talent, but sort of gets lost in the busy plot mechanics of the third act.) In the end, what should be a three-hankie, ugly-cry tearjerker feels unnuanced, overplotted, and mechanical. Frank and Mary deserved better. C