Marc Webb managed to make just one character-driven feature, the quirky rom-com “(500) Days of Summer,” before he turned his attentions to the studio world, with “Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel. Webb’s foray into the superhero world yielded uneven results: While both films cracked over $700 million at the global box office and made an effective case for Andrew Garfield as the web-slinger, overall returns were not nearly as hefty as Sony had hoped (Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man 2” is the lowest earner of the franchise) and critical reception was decidedly mixed.
Now Webb is back to his roots with “Gifted,” a good-hearted family drama that’s a bit like “Good Will Hunting” for the elementary school set — which is to say, solid and familiar, but not exactly a triumphant return to form.
The film follows young math prodigy Mary (the charming Mckenna Grace) and her caregiver uncle Frank (Chris Evans, trying his hand at everyman work and doing it quite well) as they struggle to marry her exceptional abilities with Frank’s desire that she get the time to be an actual kid. Step one is packing Mary off to school — even Frank, who we later discover is no scholastic slouch himself, has run out of things to teach the budding genius — although that means some uncomfortable family secrets are likely to be unearthed.
Mary has a canny way of touching everyone around her, from her occasionally gruff but doting uncle to a landlord who essentially functions as her mother (Octavia Spencer, always welcome but here underutilized) to her awestruck teacher (Jenny Slate). There is, however, at least one person who should have been charmed by Mary long ago — her rigid grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, doing well by a tough role), who emerges after a mishap at school highlights just how very different Mary is. While Frank has made it his life’s work to give Mary a rich and welcoming childhood, Evelyn has different ideas — mainly that her genius granddaughter should continue the work of her genius mother, dead when Mary was just a baby (and that’s just one of many, many secrets “Gifted” metes out whenever the plot starts lagging).
What follows is a meandering story that’s less invested in the compelling triangle at its heart — one that comes with plenty of drama, even before Frank and Evelyn trundle off to a courtroom to hash out Mary’s future — but one that is bizarrely muted by a tangled web of ancillary relationships and a tone that bounces between tearjerker and family comedy with startling irregularity.
Evans and Grace are exceedingly appealing together, and their charming chemistry keeps the film afloat even when it doesn’t seem to know which direction to move in. Duncan works her way through a thorny character, and even makes off with one outstanding monologue, and her scenes with Evans highlight the superhero star’s ability to match wits with even the most formative of talents. Still, Webb rarely puts his trio together, and the film suffers all the more for it.
That’s to say nothing of the handful of strange sequences that pepper the latter half of the film, including a visit to a hospital (ostensibly designed to make a despondent Mary feel better) and a third-act jag that sees a foster family suddenly, weirdly entering the action, even though the interpersonal dynamics of the characters at hand are more than enough to make a meal out of. Tom Flynn’s script isn’t afraid of asking tough questions when it comes to Mary’s fate (What’s good for an exceptional child? What do parents owe their offsprings?) but couches the rest of the film in such superfluous material that it’s nearly impossible to cut through the noise. In short, the math doesn’t add up.
“Gifted” will open in select theaters on Friday, April 7, with expansion to follow.