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D: Marc Webb / 97m

Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Glenn Plummer, John M. Jackson, John Finn, Elizabeth Marvel, Keir O’Donnell

In a small town in Florida, seven-year-old Mary Adler (Grace) is reluctantly preparing to go to school for the first time. Up until now she’s been homeschooled by her uncle Frank (Evans). Brighter and more precocious than the other children, Mary still has a lot to learn about social interaction and the rules she needs to abide by. Her first day doesn’t go entirely well, but she does catch the attention of her maths teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Slate), who starts to suspect that Mary is a maths prodigy. An incident involving Mary and a boy on the school bus nearly sees her expelled; in turn it causes Mary’s grandmother, Evelyn (Duncan), to visit.

There is no love lost between Frank and Evelyn (his mother). In his own words, Evelyn is uncompromising, and she hasn’t seen Mary ever before. Her reason for showing up soon becomes obvious: she wants to take Mary under her wing and cultivate her gift with complex mathematics, just as she did with Mary’s mother, Diane. But Diane – who was just as gifted as her daughter, and working on the Navier-Stokes problem (one of seven Millennium Prize Problems) – committed suicide soon after Mary’s birth, and Frank blames himself for not seeing how unhappy she was. He also blames Evelyn for not letting Diane grow up like a normal child, something that he’s determined won’t happen to Mary. But Evelyn is truly uncompromising, and soon a custody battle is under way.

Frank and Bonnie begin seeing each other, while the custody hearing sees both sides in with a chance of winning. When Frank’s lawyer (Plummer) approaches him with a deal that’s been devised by Evelyn, and which involves Mary going to live with foster carers, Frank wavers in his commitment to his niece, and eventually agrees to the plan because he’s not sure he can give her the life she needs (even though he’s done really well so far). When the day comes for her to move in with the foster carers, Mary is understandably sad, and feels betrayed. With no other recourse at his disposal it takes a notice posted at Mary’s school to push Frank into getting Mary back, and revealing something about Diane that will ensure Evelyn relinquishes her claim on Mary.

Surprisingly, Gifted is only Marc Webb’s fourth feature, and it’s telling from the movie’s poster that any mention of a certain web-slinger isn’t going to be relevant here. But an acknowledgment that Webb made the terrific indie charmer (500) Days of Summer (2009) certainly is, as this tale of a troubled family, though genial and passively compelling, has the ebb and flow of Webb’s first movie rather than the bloated excesses of the last two Spider-Man movies. Where Webb’s skill and voice as a director was lost in the hubbub of taking on a Marvel icon, here he’s regained that voice and made a movie that’s more in keeping with his moviemaking sensibilities.

The crux of the matter in Tom Flynn’s straightforward, no frills script is whether or not Mary should be treated as the maths genius she undoubtedly is, or as a normal child who just happens to be good with exponential equations. Frank wants her to have a regular childhood, where she plays outside, has friends, and isn’t nose deep in a book of mathematical problems all the time. Evelyn wants Mary to eschew all that and devote her life – even at such a young age – to developing her skills and attaining the kind of recognition that Diane was beginning to achieve before she killed herself. The movie is keen to highlight the pros and cons of both sides of the argument, but as the relationship between Frank and Mary is a loving one, and the script makes Evelyn into a hard-hearted shrew from the moment she appears, there’s no prizes for guessing which way the movie wants the viewer to vote. (In fairness, the script doesn’t allow Evelyn any kind of redemption, and makes her self-serving and callous all the way to the end.)

Of course, the overall conclusion is that Mary should be allowed to have and be both, a child prodigy and an ordinary child at the same time. The signs are already there when we first meet her, and there are dozens of clues littered throughout the movie, from her karaoke nights with neighbour Roberta (Spencer), to the empathy she shows towards a boy in her class who’s the victim of bullying. As the movie progresses and Frank opens up to Bonnie about his sister, and the responsibility he took on in looking after Mary, his self-doubt becomes apparent, but the good work he’s done in raising Mary is also apparent. He may have sacrificed a lot to be a single parent, but he’s done a remarkable job, but the script never allows him a moment of true personal triumph; he’s never sure about what he’s doing, or if it’s the right thing. This does add to the drama of the piece, but when it’s relayed so often you just want to yell, “Get over yourself, man!”

Frank’s insecurities aside, there are too many times when Evans and the character are required to provide substantial amounts of exposition that slow the movie down. Evans is a more than capable actor but here he’s required to either dial back on Frank’s feelings, or limit any angry outbursts to one every half an hour of running time. The movie is on firmer ground whenever Grace is on screen. Whether pulling a frown that would have the Joker asking “Why so serious?”, or smiling with undisguised glee, Grace is yet another child actor who can’t strike a false note even if she tried. She’s the focus and the heart of the movie, and she gives a moving performance that at times is reminiscent of Ricky Schroder in The Champ (1979). As mentioned above, Duncan is the villain of the piece, and she does well to make Evelyn occasionally sympathetic in her desire to take over Mary’s life, but there are too many moments where the character’s humanity (seen occasionally) is pushed aside in order for her to behave appallingly yet again.

Spencer and Slate are given the odd scene to remind us they’re still taking part, though it’s hard to work out why Spencer’s character is there in the first place. Slate’s role diminshes the longer the movie plays out, and by the end Bonnie is there just to listen to Frank complain about the raw deal he and Mary have been dealt (even though he agreed to it in the first place). These are two very good actresses and it’s a shame to see them relegated to playing such under-developed characters. Webb handles it all with a surety and a conviction that helps overcome some of the movie’s more clichéd moments – Mary spots the deliberate mistake in a smug professor’s equation, Evelyn gets to make an impassioned speech on the witness stand that goes unchallenged – and keeps the movie from tipping over into unrestrained mawkishness, in particular during a scene set in a hospital waiting room – one that has a powerful, sentimental payoff.

There are times when the movie feels slighter than it needs to be, and other times where the drama threatens to overwhelm the relaxed nature of much of the movie. It’s not a movie that offers much in the way of originality but it does have a charm and a likeable nature that makes it eminently watchable, and Evans, despite the limitations of his character, remains an engaging, dependable presence. Littered with enough heartstring-tugging moments designed to have viewers teary-eyed and reaching for the nearest box of tissues, Gifted does pack an emotional wallop at times, and it does provide enough food for thought in terms of its central dilemma to offset some of the thoughtless moralising that passes back and forth between Frank and Evelyn. But it’s still a simple story, told well enough to hold the viewer’s attention throughout, and is a welcome return by Webb after too many years in the mainstream wilderness.

Rating: 7/10 – a largely effective exercise in manipulating an audience’s emotions, Gifted coasts in places and isn’t as focused in its second half as it is during the first; it’s still a good movie though, full of dry humour, winning performances, a sense of its own conventional nature, and overall, a more than pleasant experience.