After directing two Spider-Man films, the appropriately named Marc Webb returns to his “(500) Days of Summer” roots with “Gifted,” handheld camera, sentimentality and all. In the film, a young math prodigy is torn between a life of normalcy and the call to greatness in the distinguished halls of academia. If the film sounds like a rehashed version of “Good Will Hunting,” that’s because it is. Yet “Gifted” still manages to be an enjoyable film whose endlessly watchable cast makes the story’s emotional beats, familiar as they may be, heartwarming enough to let the film stand on its own.
Instead of Will Hunting asking “How do ya like them apples?” we get the 7-year old Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace) asking her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) what “ad nauseam” means. Though Mary has mastered advanced calculus before her classmates have learned to multiply, her vocabulary could use a little work, which is one of the reasons Frank insists on sending her to the local school. Deep down, though, Frank just wants Mary to become a compassionate person and experience a normal childhood. These plans are threatened when Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan, who enters full-on British villain mode), herself a leading mathematician, insists on taking custody from him.
Finding talented child actors is no small feat, and hiring Grace is a huge credit to the casting team. She plays Mary with a certain wisdom fitting for such a prodigious character. Still, Mary is just a child, and the humor that Grace brings to the film reflects that. In one scene, Mary and Frank go to a beach, and as Mary playfully climbs atop Frank, she asks if God exists. The scene is shot in one take, and an orange setting sun puts Frank and Mary in a darkened silhouette. Aside from just being a sweet scene, it intelligently shows how Mary is caught between intellectual maturity and the naivety of a child, and that Frank is committed to helping her navigate that duality.
That scene also shows the palpable chemistry between Grace and Chris Evans, and the relationship they build onscreen is the highlight of the film. We all knew that Evans is a bonafide action star from his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but “Gifted” lets him prove that he is a capable dramatic actor. Jenny Slate also appears in the film as Mary’s first grade teacher, who becomes Frank’s romantic interest. While there is something uncannily endearing about seeing Mona-Lisa Saperstein date Captain America, the relationship’s impact on the film is minimal. Octavia Spencer rounds out the cast as Frank’s supportive landlord, and while she doesn’t have much screen time, it is a universally known fact that some Octavia Spencer is better than no Octavia Spencer.
The cast of “Gifted” is what draws in the audience, but the performances in the film are structured around emotional beats that any viewer can see coming from a mile away. There are a couple interesting revelations, but by and large, the film’s moments of sentimentality are ones that have been done in countless films before, not just “Good Will Hunting.” But even though “Gifted” merely repackages familiar sentiments, the characters delivering them are interesting enough to maintain our engagement. We’ve seen dramatic court battles before — you can take your pick between “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “A Few Good Men” and “My Cousin Vinny” — but when the relationship between Mary and Frank is at stake, the sense of predictability is undercut by our own investment.
Ultimately, “Gifted” is a film hindered by deja vu, but once it begins, it’s hard not to become invested in Frank, Mary and the people who care about them. By the end of the first act, the existence of “Good Will Hunting” will cease to matter, as “Gifted” is a film with an undeniable sense of joy and life, whose sweetness is never saccharine.
“Gifted” opens today at Albany Twin.