Directed by Michael O. Sajbel, from a screenplay by Cheryl McKay and Sajbel, "The Ultimate Gift" is based on the successful book by Jim Stovall. The story concerns a spoiled-rotten, super-rich playboy who is cut off after the death of his grandfather. His inheritance is contingent on his completing a series of tasks, referred to as "gifts," each teaching him a different life lesson. It's sort of like Adam Sandler's "Billy Madison," except it's a drama. Along the way he encounters a single mom, a sickly girl, South American drug dealers and, not unexpectedly, discovers a deeper sense of purpose.
The film is being released by Fox Faith, a division of 20th Century Fox dedicated, per the company's website, to "morally-driven, family-friendly programming." Apart from one not-so-subtle anti-abortion message and that the characters take time for religious worship, the film's values are fairly well encoded into the story, such that it feels less like a sermon and more like a film with a good, if somewhat sappy, heart.
The film constantly teeters on the fulcrum of its own treacly good intentions and simplistic parable-like storytelling, and the extent that it stays balanced is largely thanks to its agile cast. Drew Fuller makes the transition of the lead character plausible, though it may be no surprise that a young actor seems more at home as a self-obsessed party boy than a self-realized do-gooder.
Ali Hillis, identifiable to the obsessed Shane Black fan as a mean, drunk and slutty sidekick from "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" — her character here, it goes without saying, exhibits none of those qualities — gives the young mother a likable vulnerability. Veterans James Garner, Bill Cobbs, Brian Dennehy and Lee Meriwether are all used to add a certain respect-your-elders gravity as well.
The folks behind "The Ultimate Gift" received a gift of their own in casting young Abigail Breslin well before the "Little Miss Sunshine" star went on to become an Academy Award nominee.
Though she exhibits some of the same lovable pluck as her signature character, in "Gift" she slides helplessly into more conventional Cute Kid territory. "The Ultimate Gift" perhaps is best seen as an example of just how lucky a performer, especially one so young, must be to find a script, a part, director(s) and costars that all align to aid in creating something special. Even when a project has its values in order, as "The Ultimate Gift" surely does, it still takes something more for the end product to transcend into the realms of art.
"The Ultimate Gift." MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, some violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In selected theaters.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times