Barely five minutes into “Gifted,” the new film from director Marc Webb (best known for inheriting the “Spider-Man” franchise from Sam Raimi and then driving it immediately into a brick wall), it becomes apparent that you’re watching the cinematic equivalent of an adult coloring book, designed and then filled in for you by a computer. The melodramatic, indie-hipster bullet points, derived by algorithms that stand in for a screenplay, are checked off one by one as the film unspools. Poignant family montage set to the warbling of a singer/songwriter plucking away on his acoustic guitar? Check. Old Soul children making insightful bon mots clearly fed to them by a screenwriter in love with his own witty dialogue? Check. Excessive over-shake of a handheld camera to reinforce the film’s credibility against comparisons to Hallmark Channel productions? Check. A family cat with only one eye, dramatically saved from SPCA euthanasia at the literal LAST POSSIBLE SECOND? Two checks, but only because they managed to get an actual one-eyed cat instead of using CGI.
That’s “Gifted” in a nutshell. It’s the story of a seven year-old math prodigy named Mary (McKenna Grace) whose grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) wants to take her away from the uncle (Chris Evans) who raised her, so she can ship Mary off to a school for the – wait for it! – gifted. But Chris wants Mary to have a normal life, lest the pressures of genius cause her to commit suicide the way her mother did, because, as we all know, mathematicians are predisposed to self-destructive behavior. A predictable custody battle follows, during which Evelyn throws her money around and besmirches her estranged son’s good name, resulting in Mary being hauled off against her will to live with suspiciously perfect-looking foster parents. Are you hearing that pencil, ticking off those boxes yet?
“Gifted” satisfies all the criteria for wish-fulfillment fantasy, where snotty, rich white people use their money to get what they want, only to be thwarted and shamed by every day, salt-of-the-earth type people — people like you and me! Who doesn’t crave such stories during difficult times as these? Stories of noble and heroic Everymen who stand bravely against insurmountable social pressures, only to have their endurance rewarded with victory against powers greater than they? We call them “feel-good movies,” and they’re seemingly benign things, telling reasonably plausible tales that go straight for the soft underbelly of an audience wanting to be moved. “Gifted” is scripted, acted, scored, and produced with every conceivable pull of the heartstring, as calculated as integrals over infinite intervals: every opportunity to show a child cry, or a child empowered, or a windbag hoisted by their own petard; or hugs, or dramatic hospital births, or any number of associated minor miracles that allow us to celebrate life and the emotional solution of differential equations. It’s like a box of instant mashed potatoes: “Just add tears.”
Ironically (or not), a film that devotes so much time to the discussion of mathematics feels as though it was assembled by a computer: an equation balanced by formulaic components, broken down to ones and zeros. And yet, this is code written to render a specified result, namely the manipulation of willing viewers who don’t know (or care) that they’ve seen the exact same movie fifty times already. You get all the same emotional coefficients, subscripts, and polynomials from any one of a dozen films of this sort; the same algebraic expression repurposed in linear progression, yielding a solution equal to or lesser than those Nicholas Sparks movies that somehow keep getting made.
The problem is, life doesn’t work this way. If “Gifted” was indeed created by artificial intelligence, its broader strokes might be more understandable than if they were generated by, say, a human being who had at some point met other human beings. It’s the same juvenile approach that presents nefarious, upper crust people like Evelyn as having British accents, despite the accent not making any sense in context of her very American offspring. But British accents make authoritarian characters sound evil. Check.
Or what about the wise and sage-like archetype known as the Magical Black Person? The algorithm demands it. Octavia Spencer pops in every twenty minutes, shoehorned into a film that doesn’t in any way support her character’s existence beyond 1) featuring an African-American actor in an otherwise pale and pasty film; and 2) allowing words of wisdom to roll humorously out of a stereotypically sassy mouth. It’s worth noting that she has about four lines of dialogue, two of which are variations on “OH NO YOU DIDN’T,” both uttered during the traditional Stand Up to a White Person scene (you know: the one that allows Caucasian viewers a moment to feel proud of themselves for being progressive enough to cheer her on?). Otherwise, the character has no life or purpose of her own, showing up only when the plot demands it. Check.
And yet this computer doesn’t know how to handle genuine, heartfelt emotion that hasn’t been laid out strategically on a number line in successive order. Sure, the kid cries a lot, which is cheap and effective, but “Gifted” can’t process more subtle and realistic moments, such as when Evans’s love interest, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) delivers her first monologue. She opens her mouth during a vulnerable moment to reveal her greatest fears in life, when suddenly her dialogue is faded out and replaced by heart-wrenching piano score. Her lips are moving, but what is she saying? Is AI programming the AI? Who knows? Who cares? Check.
For all this, Evans is just so damn likable that you find yourself shrugging off the inoffensively stupid nonsense going on around him. His easy charm carries the film on his broad shoulders. Will he get his niece back from the foster parents who have taken her away? Of course he will. Does everyone live happily ever after, enriched by the experience (including the villainous characters who’ve all learned Important Life Lessons)? Totally. Will the average viewer understand all the references to binomial theorems and quadrilateral equations jammed into a narrative that wants you to think it’s smarter than it is just because Blacklist said so? Not even close. “Gifted” is all just one and zeros, which happens to be the perfect IQ for anyone who thinks that real people behave as depicted, or that life behaves in such mathematically balanced fashion.
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Tom Flynn
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material