Warning: Potential Spoilers*
Looking at everything that the film Gifted tries to be, the odds of it being as good as it is are overwhelmingly stacked against it. Director Marc Webb is known for his work on The Amazing Spiderman series, a very different tone and feeling from the tear-jerking drama of Gifted. Familiar faces are presented with less time than we ever would have expected for them (except for Chris Evans, who is front and center and knows it). The script is filled with cliches and sometimes does not do itself justice by explaining the events for us in a satisfying way. So what is it that Gifted gives us that makes it a worthwhile film? The gift we are given is execution – the chemistry between actors, the way that the story unravels in a way that both embraces and defies cliche, and the simple beauty of every unpolished shot come together to bring this film to life in a way that you would not expect walking into the theater. It may be formulaic, but when the elements of Gifted come together, you forget about formula, your eyes well up, and your heart feels full.
For seven years, Frank Adler (Evans, once again proving that if he hangs up the shield that he will have a good career anyway) has raised his sister’s daughter Mary (McKenna Grace), whose mathematical abilities put her miles above her first grade peers. In that hopes that he is helping Mary realize his sister’s dreams for her, Frank enrolls Mary in a regular school, attracting the attention of her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) and causes the school to contact his estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Evelyn worked with Mary’s mother on her own mathematical prowess, and insists that Mary’s potential is being wasted and leaving her with Frank is to deny the child her rights. Frank insists that by choosing to leave Mary in his care, her mother wished for Mary to have a normal life. A court battle ensues to determine the best place for Mary to be, and the question becomes about what is best for an exceptional child – an exceptional life, or an ordinary one?
The entire story hinges on one relationship and one relationship only – the love that stems from Frank and Mary. While Frank’s connection to his estranged mother is an interesting one and there are plenty of other people in the narrative for these two to connect to, Frank and Mary are the two to make or break the film. These two play off each other with such ease, it’s entirely possible to forget that Evans and Grace aren’t actually related at all, and that enhances the entire story of the uncle and niece left to their own devices. The relationship goes from the playful banter of an adult speaking to a child with an adult-like mind to heart-filled and sweet conversations about whether or not there is a God to the painful question of whether or not Frank thinks that Mary is holding him back in life, or if staying with Frank is in Mary’s best interest. No matter what the discussion or thought, the dialogue between these two is thoughtful and raw and real, so even if it sounds a little cliche, you’ll believe it and love it. There is also a great deal to be said about the relationship between Frank and Evelyn, which is never truly vindictive. There is nonetheless an obviously toxic dynamic that overshadows their every moment together on-screen and bleeds into every line spoken between them. It’s not that they hate each other, but they cannot get along and see eye to eye, and it is almost worse than if they hated each other’s guts.
These thoughtful moments are played out with lovely images the entire film, with some sticking out more than others. Frank takes Mary out to the beach in several shots and the sunlight on the water, the shadows of Frank and Mary against the sunset, the soft and rainy light over the courthouse as Frank and Evelyn argue over Mary’s future, they’re all wonderful at setting the ambiance of the film, as well as giving the audience a great image to stare at. In order to really get the impact of those shots, the film often uses music to emphasize the emotion (and they really know how to pick that music) and then they’ll tie it all together with some incredibly poignant voiceovers. The film also knows what not to show the audience too – it is eventually revealed that Mary was left in Frank’s care after her mother committed suicide, and though the events are discussed by the characters, they are never shown. Mary’s mother is viewed in pictures and discussed by characters, but her last days are never shown to the audience, and the characters can only speculate as to what she would truly have wanted. By knowing exactly what to show and what to omit, the film directs us to the important moments that we need to see – Mary, how her life has unfolded, and where it should go from here.
While the main crux of the story works well, there are certain elements that could have used a second look, or an overall cut. The biggest example is that the cast itself is just a tad too large – specifically, the roles of Slate’s Bonnie (Mary’s teacher) and Octavia Spencer’s Roberta (Frank and Mary’s neighbor) are both seriously undermined in terms of importance. Spencer has performed these mothering, Jiminy Cricket-type roles before, so it’s not a question of if she’s good at them – she’s great at them. The problem is that the role was so small that she didn’t really get a chance to be great at this one. Then Slate had the exact opposite problem – I’ve never been particularly impressed with her work, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with her now, but she had very little time to attempt to change my mind about her. Between the two of them there were two potentially interesting characters, even though one was the cliche mothering figure and one was the cliche love interest, but neither of them really had a chance to be much at all. The script writer should have just picked one of them and focused on that one, giving one a little more development and purpose, and cut the other entirely, and the cast would’ve felt smaller, more intimate, and more fitting. And my personal vote is that they kept Spencer’s character, since I actually liked her, while Slater’s just came across as trying too hard and a little ridiculous. She bumped the plot along when needed, and not much else.
Gifted is the sappy, love-filled sort of movie that you can sort of figure out as soon as you walk in – though I will give Gifted this, there were definitely moments I did not anticipate, such as Chris’ final decision for Mary and the revelation about Mary’s mother – but this does not mean that you will not enjoy it anyway. It’s always sort of nice to walk into a movie knowing that you will enjoy yourself and maybe tear up every once in awhile, to not be waiting for a twist or a shock that will change the entire nature of the movie for you. Gifted is not new, but its present to us as an audience is that it is so well-done, we don’t need it to be new. We just sit back and enjoy it for what it is.
4 / 5
One surprise you will get is One-Eyed Fred. I love One-Eyed Fred. I would adopt One-Eyed Fred. The unsung hero of this film is the kitty One-Eyed Fred.