It’s really too bad that Marc Webb was a fan of Spider-Man. Years ago, the director of (500) Days of Summer went to Sony to pitch a project, the conversation turned toward their superhero series and his love of the comic books, and he wound up directing The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, a time suck that kept him, Andrew Garfield, and Emma Stone away from things that would have been worthier of their time. While the actors have put their careers back on track, this week Webb’s new film Gifted comes to Tarrant County, and while no one should confuse this modestly budgeted dramedy with great art, it does point Webb in a better direction.
Chris Evans stars as Frank Adler, a boat repairman in south Florida who ekes out a living for himself and Mary (Mckenna Grace), his 7-year-old niece whom he has raised ever since his mathematician sister’s suicide. The story begins with him sending Mary to her first day of school, and before that day is over, her teacher (Jenny Slate) discovers that Mary can instantly compute square roots of five-digit numbers in her head. That causes Mary’s British maternal grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) to reappear and insist that the girl be given an education befitting her genius. Frank, citing his sister’s last wishes, is equally adamant that Mary be given as normal a childhood as possible.
We’ve seen this before. You may or may not remember Jodie Foster’s 1991 film Little Man Tate having essentially the same plot. Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn are savvy enough to show that the cold, unsympathetic Evelyn has a point about Frank’s cockroach-infested house and the fact that Mary is disrupting her classroom because she’s bored out of her mind in first grade. Frank knows this, too. The filmmakers set this all up beautifully, which only makes it more disappointing when the second half of the movie degenerates into cheesy courtroom theatrics and soap-bubbly melodrama.
The acting keeps the movie just this side of bearable, with Evans’ customary low-key grace working particularly well in this setting. His romantic subplot with Slate’s teacher is good, too, no surprise considering the two actors were a couple at the time. Octavia Spencer plays Frank’s neighbor and Mary’s occasional babysitter, and while she’s typically excellent, I wish someone would let her play something other than these resilient earth mothers who take no crap. (She did that in Snowpiercer, but at least that movie let her bludgeon somebody to death with a crowbar. She could make a great villain.)
I could have done with more weirdness both from Mckenna Grace and from the filmmakers’ conception of Mary, but she’s still bright and incisive. There’s a scene near the end in Frank’s truck when she turns a philosophical discussion into a rhyme about her one-eyed orange cat named Fred. It feels like something Grace made up that Webb wisely left in the movie, and it’s exactly the sort of silly nonsense that a 7-year-old might come up with. That little bit of tossed-off joy is something Gifted and its director could have used more of.
Starring Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace. Directed by Marc Webb. Written by Tom Flynn. Rated PG-13.