On paper, the theme of Gifted, the fourth feature by director Marc Webb (of (500) Days of Summer fame and Amazing Spider-Man infamy), is uncontroversial enough. Who would disagree that every kid—no matter his or her background or ability—deserves a real childhood? But Gifted is a peculiar kind of feel-good film, one whose preposterous story labors to prop up a false dichotomy. This movie somehow manages to take a benign theme and transform into something that can only be described as repellant.

Moral queasiness, of course, isn’t a sufficient reason for dismissing a work outright. Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier have built careers on the skillful demonstration of repugnance. What makes Gifted uniquely ugly is the hazy patina of warmth and righteousness Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn imbue this half-baked product. The audience isn’t asked to reckon with gray moral questions. We’re meant to stand and cheer along with the good guy, who happens to be played by Captain America. The problem is, the hero here is a (seemingly well-intentioned) monster.

That monster is named Frank (Chris Evans), a single man rearing his seven-year-old niece Mary (McKenna Grace) in a modest home on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s obvious early on that Mary is special. Frank enrolls her in public school, and she instantly dazzles her first-grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) with an ability to compute advanced mathematics in her head, as her peers struggle with simple arithmetic. Stultified by instruction that’s beneath her, Mary begins to act out in class. When Bonnie suggests that Mary be placed in a private school for gifted students, all expenses paid, Frank rejects the notion outright. He refuses to budge, even when the school principle pleads on Mary’s behalf.

Why would a thoughtful hunk of a caregiver damn his niece, who’s clearly a genius, to such a prison of boredom? This is what Gifted unsuccessfully tries to answer via a history of family drama and an anti-intellectual bent that resonates, in the wrong way, with our current political climate. You see, Frank’s late sister, and Mary’s mother, was a world-class mathematician. The circumstances surrounding her death hang over him, an inescapable pall that’s also altered the course of his own life. When his mother Evelyn (the excellent Lindsay Duncan) shows up, out of the blue, from Boston to seize control of her granddaughter’s education, a maddening legal battle ensues.

What transpires next is mind-numbingly idiotic for a film that casually tosses around dialogue about differential calculus and the potential solution to Navier–Stokes equations. (Don’t ask.) Worse, it squanders a top-notch cast, inexplicably shoehorning Octavia Spencer into the proceedings as a concerned neighbor and Jenny Slate as little more than a potential love interest for Frank. McKenna Grace, a spitting image of a young Kiernan Shipka, is without question a marvel. Her scenes with Chris Evans, particularly the big emotional centerpieces late in the film, are impressive in spite of the material. They have an undeniable, lived-in chemistry. But by then, who cares? We might as well be watching expert line readings between two actors auditioning for a much better movie.

You leave Gifted wondering who exactly Webb and Flynn are trying so hard to rouse. Its sanctimony may be off-putting, but its viewpoint is vile. Some of this could be forgiven, perhaps, if its (mercifully) short runtime offered the slightest bit of narrative sense. For a movie obsessed with advanced mathematics, it can’t wrestle with the one-plus-one of basic filmmaking. The result is a cinematic null set.

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