There are few words that can kill a film quicker than cute – just say to yourself, “Gosh, what a cute movie that was,” and you can practically feel the inside of your mouth lined with a thin, granular film of Nutra-Sweet. It’s one thing, of course, to plunk down cash to watch grumpy old coots and/or kids say the darnedest things, or bask in the cinematic equivalent of a puppy licking a baby’s head. We, too, have done this. We don’t judge you. Those things are a shucks-and-awww attack, and resistance is futile. You know what you’re getting into when you buy the ticket. But then there are the ones that start leaning on cuteness as a crutch – the sort of movies that do not trust that its story alone will provide enough laughter and tears, or trials and triumphs. They begin to liberally mix cuteness with sentimentality like potassium cyanide pellets with sulfuric acid. Which brings us to Gifted.
There’s actually a good deal to commend in director Marc Webb’s male weepie about a boat-repairman named Frank (Chris Evans) who’s raising his seven-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) – the twist being that the girl is a genius-level math prodigy and God-level precocious moppet, the kind that blurts out both numerical square roots and smart-ass answers with ease. There’s the off-the-charts screen chemistry between Evans and costar Jenny Slate, playing Mary’s teacher and, inevitably, the romantic interest. There’s Grace, a young performer who’s already figured out how to act for the camera, and more impressively, how to radiate intelligence without seeming like there’s someone’s feeding her collegiate calculus answers offstage. There’s a sequence in which the child and her guardian discuss why she’s not like other kids, set in a sunset-silhouette shot that’s simply breathtaking. You get the always-welcome Octavia Spencer as a loving neighbor. And say hello to Sherlock‘s wonderful Lindsay Duncan as the world’s most glacial grandmother, who wants to whisk Mary away to a gifted-youngster school (also, away from the resident blue-collar black-sheep Frank) and give her the blueblood life that is her legacy.
Even the fact that the movie borrows heavily from Good Will Hunting, Five Easy Pieces, family tragedies, custody-battle courtroom dramas, other Fox Searchlight feel-good flicks and every third egghead-vs.-jus’ folks class-conflict you’ve ever seen – it’s totally forgivable. Except Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn are unable to resist the temptation of milking moments for maximum heartstring-battery impact, to the point where you can almost see a good movie drowning under the thickest of sap. Reaction shots to precious wisdom literally coming from the mouth of babes arrive in triplicate. Reunion scenes will drag those teardrops out of your eyes or die tryin’. Everything gets boiled down to a reductive emotional semaphore. Even Evans’ ex-philosophy professor (please stop snickering) isn’t just a grease monkey fleeing Northeastern aristocracy, he’s a “damaged, hot type” with a halo; having already played a superhero, the actor is now called on to be a saint. There’s a soul-song singalong and a freaking one-eyed cat in the mix. Cuteness reigns.
It’s unfair to make Gifted pay for the sins of all manipulative melodramas, and no one, including us, wants an academic treatise on whether it’s better to nurture preadolescent exceptionalism or give extraordinary kids a traditional childhood, all intellectual chin-stroking and ice-water running through its veins. (Full disclosure: We almost took a nap just writing that sentence.) But with a cast so talented on deck and a director who’s shown he can get creative when he needs to – see (500) Days of Summer – it’s hard not to expect a little more than the same old easy, cheap pay-offs. For a story about a brilliant child, it’s remarkably boilerplate in most respects. The film’s heroine is extraordinarily gifted. The film itself, not so much.