The tale of a rancorous battle for custody of a motherless mathematical prodigy, “Gifted” manages, for the most part, to rise above not just the “Kramer vs. Kramer” dynamic of a kindhearted man facing off against a coldly manipulative woman in the fight to control the destiny of an innocent child, but the inevitable histrionics, both inside the courtroom and out.
If the movie stumbles over its own feet from time to time – tripped up by such emotionally manipulative plot points as the threat of euthanization leveled against a beloved, one-eyed pet cat – it is redeemed by an appealing cast, tart dialogue and the preponderance of genuine emotion over the manufactured variety.
“Gifted” tells the story of Mary (Mckenna Grace), a little girl who has been raised – and so far home-schooled – by her uncle Frank (Chris Evans), after the death of her mother, Frank’s sister, a promising mathematician who killed herself when Mary was an infant. When Frank, a former Boston University philosophy professor who has, somewhat preposterously, taken up freelance boat repair outside Tampa, decides that Mary needs to begin attending regular school, Mary’s maternal grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), shows up, unexpected and unwelcome, with designs to wrench the girl away from the home she loves and place her in a school for the gifted. Although neither Frank nor Mary wants this disruption to their comfortably shaggy lives, the situation is complicated by the fact that specialists, including Mary’s teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), also believe that the child could benefit from education better tailored to her talents.
From this point on, the action is pretty predictable, including a romantic entanglement between Frank and Bonnie, shocking underhandedness on the part of Grandma and some brassy sideline commentary on the fray, courtesy of Frank’s neighbor and Mary’s surrogate mom, played with reliable verve by Octavia Spencer.
The screenplay by Thom Flynn (“Watch It”) sounds, at least, authentic, with references to the Navier-Stokes “Millennium Problem,” one of seven unsolved math conundrums that, if worked out, come with a $1 million prize. (It’s a real thing, and the film hinges on the fact that Mary’s mother had been working on it at the time of her suicide.) If this setup gives filmmaker Marc Webb material that is both less highflying than Webb’s recent work on “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel, and less quirkily relatable than the director’s breakout film “(500) Days of Summer,” “Gifted” nevertheless benefits from Webb’s instinct to focus more on character than plot.
Yes, there’s a third-act twist that both reveals and undermines more than one character’s motives, but the film sinks or swims based less on what the protagonists do than on whether we like them. As Frank, Evans has charisma to burn, and Grace (of “Once Upon a Time”) is adorable, in an unforced way that steers clear of child-prodigy clichés. Their chemistry – as well as that of Evans and Slate, who recently ended an off-screen romance of several months – is offbeat and sweet.
“Gifted” is a clever, if less than brilliant film. Like Mary, its true genius lies not in what’s on the page, but in its humanity.