The problem in "Gifted" — not to be mistaken for the problem with "Gifted" — is the question of what to do when your child is a genius.
Rejoicing, it seems, is not an option. Do you encourage her gift to the exclusion of all other interests, setting yourself up for years of filial resentment and therapy bills? Or do you try to tame and repress that natural brilliance, sacrificing the possibility of something extraordinary for the mixed blessing of normalcy?
These appear to be the only options facing Frank Adler (Chris Evans), a Florida bachelor who has raised his 7-year-old niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace), since the death of her mother, Diane, not long after the child was born. Diane was a tortured math genius (is there any other kind in the movies?), and Mary — already blessed with the kind of irritable, adorable personality that's meant to signify brightness beyond her years — shows clear signs of having inherited her mother's formidable brain.
It's not every first-grader, after all, who spends her free time tackling differential calculus and shames her classmates with the sort of mental prowess that might give Matilda Wormwood a run for her money. But Frank, a former academic who now repairs boats for a living, has no interest in following the school's recommendation that Mary be sent to a private academy for the gifted. He's been down that road before, apparently, and witnessed the dire consequences firsthand.
Crisply directed by Marc Webb from an agile, acerbic script by Tom Flynn, "Gifted" initially displays the kind of disarming precocity that feels well suited to its subject. The filmmakers seem well aware of the long tradition of movies about troubled but exceptional young minds, from "Little Man Tate" to "Good Will Hunting." And for a while they attempt to avoid the pitfalls of excessive earnestness and melodramatic hand-wringing that can attend this particular sub-genre.
Humor is one of the key weapons in their arsenal, starting with the relaxed, quippy banter that flows between Frank and Mary, whose love for one another is best expressed in terms of mutual exasperation. The ever-reliable Octavia Spencer, recently Oscar-nominated for her performance as a real-life math whiz in "Hidden Figures," turns up here as Frank's landlady, a sturdy fount of wisecracking wisdom whom Mary adores.
Mary's elementary school, where she spends a few weeks being challenged socially if not intellectually, offers an abundance of kid-friendly life lessons couched in sharp comic payoffs and clever punchlines. One of the funniest arrives courtesy of her well-meaning teacher (Jenny Slate), whose natural spark all but ensures her status as a love interest for Frank — an icky parent-teacher indiscretion that the movie is just quick-witted enough to get away with.
Before he churned out the two recent "Amazing Spider-Man" movies starring Andrew Garfield, Webb rose to indie-film prominence with "(500) Days of Summer," a smart and slickly ingratiating romantic comedy that was ultimately a bit too taken with its own cleverness. Something similar could be said of "Gifted," in which even the smallest lines and details — such as Mary's love for her one-eyed tabby cat, Fred — turn out to be variables in a meticulously rigged emotional equation.
The movie shifts into custody-battle mode shortly after Frank's wealthy British Gorgon of a mother, Evelyn (played with viperous elegance by Lindsay Duncan), swoops in from her perch in Boston. Meeting her granddaughter for the first time after a long absence, Evelyn is determined to take Mary away from her uncle, with his leaky boats and beat-up truck, and grant her the same elite education and privileged upbringing that were afforded Diane.
"Gifted" is more interested in Mary's emotional and psychological state — especially her sense of abandonment by her biological dad — than it is in her academic potential. Webb is careful not to risk boring his audience with anything that might smack of homework. It's revealed that Diane died before she could solve the Navier-Stokes equation, a real-life puzzle that is floated here as an elusive mathematical MacGuffin. Mary's astonishing gifts are reduced to so much elegant scribbling on a blackboard, accompanied by the kind of whirring-gears music that might have been lifted from "A Beautiful Mind."
This is irksome if unsurprising. Few movies can be bothered to embody, or even explain, the superhuman thought processes and complex analytical reasoning at work here (though it would be nice if more of them tried). The film needn't have been a triumph of the intellect; an emotionally honest melodrama would have more than sufficed.
But this brings us to the problem with "Gifted." In attempting to balance the central conflict between Frank and Evelyn, a nature-vs.-nurture clash with a dash of class warfare, the movie comes up disappointingly short. Not even Duncan's noble efforts to transcend easy villainy, or Evans and Grace's winning rapport, can quite fill the hollowness of the movie's third-act calculations.
What to do when your child is a genius? Having propounded two equally difficult, equally bogus solutions, "Gifted" sets out to prove the existence of a third. No one is likely to disagree with the basic correctness of the movie's conclusions, though you may well object to the process by which it arrives at them.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In limited release