"Gifted" is like pancake syrup — it looks warm and loving, and tastes sweet while serving as a catalyst for a fine meal, but in the end, it manipulates your taste buds into making a bad choice for your stomach, which then creates an ache. Allow me to explain.
Frank Adler (Chris Evans) just wants to lay low, raise his niece Mary(McKenna Grace), and create a small quaint life in the peaceful suburbs of Florida. There's only one problem: Mary is a mathematical genius, stands head and shoulders above the rest of her first grade class and isn't fitting in. When Frank refuses to send Mary to a prestigious school for gifted kids, certain measures are taken to ensure the young girl is given the "proper" education. But what exactly is "proper" for Mary and does it fit with Frank and the grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who may have ulterior motives.
Marc Webb's ("500 Days of Summer", "The Amazing Spider Man") film examines the ageless theory when it comes to children who are different: when it is OK for adults to determine when the age of innocence should end for a kid who is different? After all, Frank is only driving home the wishes of his late sister in wanting to give Mary a normal life, but even he isn't sure that is the right way to take things. His loving neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer, who needs to be every film) is afraid the task will overwhelm him. Evelyn wants the kid to reach her highest potential, but perhaps at the cost of her freedom. All of this leads to a custody hearing.
"Gifted" isn't a bad film, but I also don't think it's a very good one either, and that is due to a movie that is begging for your attention. It is trying extremely hard to be adorable. While Tom Flynn's script has a few tablespoons of nuance and a handful of good lines, the end result is predictable and the ride is familiar. This film is like a puppy at a kennel that is dying for you to show it attention, but in the end, you go home with a bad itch.
Evans and Grace form a fine combo at the heart of the story, but in a movie about a gifted child, the movie wastes valuable screen time on Frank's story, which is very remote and forgettable. He used to do this, got conflicted, decided to do that, and is now a sad man putting on a happy face for his daughter while every woman in town asks to be a part of the grumpy merry-go-round. Why not make Grace's Mary the true centerpiece of the film? It's not a shot against Evans, because the 35-year-old actor showed acting chops in "Puncture" (and indie drama shot before his Captain America mania began), and shows them again here. It felt like Flynn and Webb wanted to make sure audiences remembered Evans could carry a film on his broad Boston shoulders, but they forgot about the character with the most juice: the gifted one.
Spencer is always a good presence and doesn't lack conviction as an adopted female presence in Mary's life, but she feels like a last minute appliance added to a cinematic kitchen that was halfway out the door. What really drags the movie down is a completely useless romantic subplot between Frank and Mary's teacher, Bonnie(Jenny Slate), a device that is merely placed there to bring out Frank's backstory, because he couldn't confess to a boat he was working on. It feels recycled, and carries the extra weight of Evans and Slate's off-screen romance to make it feel tacked on.
The warm presence and pretty looking cast of the film will sway you at first, but after the meat of the plot is revealed and the ending becomes inevitable, it will feel like you were robbed of a more truthful and original conclusion. Instead of investing in the true soul of the story, Webb's film puts a spotlight on the heart of the tale that is nothing new.
It's best to save "Gifted" for Blu Ray or DVD, where the expectations are lower and the safe confines of the plot relate to the comfy areas of a couch and recliner. Better yet, go rent "Puncture" instead.