Following the hastily forgotten Amazing Spider-Man movies, Gifted sees the return of director Marc Webb to smaller personal dramas. This was after all the genre that made him famous. (500) Days of Summer was praised for its subversion of genre tropes and its resistance to the sentimentality that often tanks these kinds of movies. Gifted comes across as some kind of cosmic re-balancing for that effort as the tropes are now embraced with open arms and the sentiment is lathered on thick.
7-year-old Mary is Gifted but her uncle and sole guardian Frank (Chris Evans) wants her to attend a normal school and live the normal life that was denied to her similarly Gifted mother. Mary isn’t shy about her smarts and immediately grabs the attention of her teacher Bonnie. After repeatedly poking her nose into his personal life, Bonnie strikes up a relationship with Frank and all seems well. Until the arrival of Evelyn, Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother. She wants to whisk Mary away on an adventure of mathematical proportions and use her prodigious talents to solve a famous equation, thus cementing her place in history.
Right off the bat, it’s immediately obvious that Gifted is playing schmaltz bingo. Let’s see: a bright mind whose genius puts it out of touch with their peers, good old-fashioned American labourers versus heartless intellectuals, a custody battle for a small child between a caring guardian and a grandmother who’s just a pitchfork and tail away from literally being Satan. That’s a good score. As the ice queen granny, Evelyn speechifies like a supervillain, devours the scenery and at one dramatically tosses hair from her eyes. To be fair she is given a shade of humanity, a shade being all that’s permitted so that she can still be boo-hissable.
Over the course of 90 long minutes we watch her go toe-to-toe with the forces of good. As evidenced by 2013’s Snowpiercer, Chris Evans enjoys jumping into more “serious” fare in between colossal blockbusters. Strangely, his character here channels plenty of Captain America in his stoic, “do the right thing” morality. That code has seen Mary grow up into the default movie genius: bratty, cocky but sensitive. The actress does a good job for her age, though her dialogue is very much a 40-year-old’s 7-year-old. Octavia Spencer is also there. She does karaoke with Mary so we assume that have some sort of bond. But mainly her job is to hang around and give Chris long, maternal stares.
The performances manage to elevate the film somewhat and there are moments that hint at a more intelligent and morally complex story lurking underneath. But this is ultimately a tedious film, a patchwork of soppy movie clichés that must have been embarrassing to write. It’s all so heavy handed and blunt with no genuine insight or subtlety. It yanks roughly on our heartstrings when what was really needed was a lighter touch.
Gifted is on general release from Friday 16th June