How do you create an ordinary life for an extraordinary girl?
After winning over audiences with the smart romantic-comedy 500 Days of Summer (2009), promising director Marc Webb got a little preoccupied rebooting Spider-Man for Sony Pictures, his series fizzling out on The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Rise of Electro (2014), which itself was something of a jumbled mess. Not one to rest on his laurels, Webb turned his talents to television with the likes of Limitless (2015) and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015), before returning to the big screen with Gifted — and I, for one, couldn’t be happier that he did.
Set in coastal Florida, Gifted follows a 7-year-old girl, Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), who goes to school for the very first time — nothing extraordinary about this, except she, herself, is. See, young Mary is something of a prodigy, already far more advanced than her surprised teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), who tries to convince Mary’s guardian, her uncle Frank (Chris Evans), that he should foster her talents. Frank, however, is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as Mary was given to him by his late sister Diane, a promising mathematician whose dying wish was that her little girl would grow up in a normal environment. With Frank living in a small suburban flat, complete with a one-eyed cat named Fred and friendly landlord Roberta (Octavia Spencer), things are about as ordinary as they can be. Alas, the arrival of Frank’s ‘very British’ mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) pushes the gruff-looking boat mechanic into a tug-of-war custody battle to determine Mary’s future — either, she stays with Frank and enjoys her time as a child or moves to Boston to live with Evelyn, where she’ll be tutored in preparation for a life devoted to solving equations.
It should be noted, right off the bat, that the script for Gifted was originally on the famous Hollywood ‘blacklist’ — a series of the highly regarded yet unproduced screenplays — back in 2014. The reason I bring this up is that it makes one wonder what else has been lying around, left unrealized, with Gifted being a quality example of what could’ve remained unseen by audiences. It seems that producers Andy Cohen, Untraceable (2008), and Karen Lunder, The Founder (2016), played their cards right, nabbing an A-list star in Chris Evans, Captain America: Civil War (2016), and everyone’s favorite Aunty-type figure Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures (2016), so that this project could get the attention it rightfully deserved.
The central performances are magnetic, with the charismatic Evans and young Mckenna Grace, Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), playing off one other with nothing less than an earnest rapport and an affinity for their characters. From their very first scene, viewers know that they’re watching something special as Grace manages to balance her character’s smart-assery with a precocious sort of charm, Grace’s questioning of the term ‘ad nauseum’ growing into a poignant motif by the film’s end. Comedian Jenny Slate, The LEGO Batman Movie (2017), and the ever loveable Octavia Spencer chime in with solid support, while Lindsay Duncan, About Time (2013), keeps her antagonist relatable and grounded — while our feelings lie with Frank, logically, Evelyn’s contention makes a whole lot of sense.
Stemming from that, Tom Flynn’s screenplay is a smoothly developed exploration of a simple yet complex dilemma involving young geniuses — should they be encouraged to nurture their minds (at the risk of damaging their social lives) or live out their days like regular people and grow in worldliness? What is lost going to either extreme? Thankfully, Marc Webb takes what was already great about the script and strengthens it by returning to the type of filmmaking that initially put him on the map — tackling stories that try to understand how everyday people change their circumstances and why. The pacing is well-oiled, never drooping and while cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), and music composer Rob Simonsen, The Age of Adaline (2015), have some lovely contributions to offer, it’s clear that this light drama is all about letting the actors shine.
While some have complained that Gifted is a manipulative, predictable tear-jerker, further bogged down by superfluous moments, I feel that a majority of these negative reactions are coming from cold-hearted cynics who fail to see the film’s heart, as the emotions Webb wrings out are really quite genuine. As for the predictability, perhaps it’s their own subconsciousness preordaining events before they even play out. Lastly, the issue of unnecessary tangents was never really a concern for me, as personally, I was wholly invested in the narrative from start to finish. The way I look at it — if it works, it works.
All in all, I hope more people get behind Gifted as I think it’s a wonderful gem of a movie, one that’s worthy of more notice. It’s low-key, accessible, warm and thoughtful, never overstays its welcome and features a very compelling duo at its core. If all this sounds like your kind of entertainer, I’d encourage you to seek out this beautiful little film.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
Gifted is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia