If there were as many kid geniuses in real life as there are in the movies, the world would not lack for future brainpower. Apparently there’s something about seeing a first-grader stride to a blackboard and solve an Einstein-level math equation that is irresistibly appealing.
“Gifted” proves that, yes, that blackboard scene is still irresistible, if the film is as smart and low-key as this one.
The brainiac in question is Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), a 7-year-old who lives with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) in Florida. Her deceased mother was a math genius, and Mary has clearly inherited her gift for numbers.
Enrolling Mary in first grade brings this gift to the attention of her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate, from “Obvious Child”). The fact that Bonnie is single and sympathetic means she’ll be a potential match for the hunky uncle, a situation that would be trite if it weren’t for the freshness that Slate and Evans bring to their scenes together.
Once Mary’s talent is exposed, her absent grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) moves into the picture. Frank wants to keep custody of the child and raise her in a school with non-genius kids; grandma wants Mary to attend an elite academy.
A courtroom battle ensues, blah blah blah, heartstrings are pulled. Still, a few things make “Gifted” better than average. Tom Flynn’s script is full of bright dialogue and repeated lines that show the characters listen to each other. Sure, it borrows from precursors like “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Little Man Tate,” but wisely.
Director Marc Webb seems relieved to be back at the level of his indie hit “(500) Days of Summer” and out of the “Spider-Man” vortex. He gets good muggy Florida atmosphere and some decent performances, including once from McKenna Grace that makes you buy the possibility that maybe this girl could actually be a genius.
Duncan is practically Shakespearian as Mary’s formidable grandma, and Slate is funky and heartfelt as the teacher. Unfortunately, Octavia Spencer has little to do but provide moral support as Mary’s grown-up pal.
Chris Evans underplays appealingly, although it’s hard to be an average guy when you’re packing your Captain America muscle. Many of our leading men are now so distorted by superhero bulk they can no longer pass for regular humans — and what’s nice about this little, unexpected movie is that it is about regular humans.
“Gifted” (3 stars)
A battle for custody of a genius 7-year-old (McKenna Grace), between regular-guy uncle (Chris Evans) and imperious grandma (Lindsay Duncan). The movie’s a formula heart-tugger, but it’s got a well-written script and the cast is low-key appealing. With Jenny Slate.
Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Marysville, Meridian, Sundance Cinemas, Thornton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Cascade Mall