Predictable, formulaic and safe were all words flying around my head after a midday screening of Gifted, one sweltering afternoon last week. They seem to be among the most popular adjectives used to describe the new Marc Webb-directed comedy-drama, it would seem, and suggest you may have seen this whole film before, just in a slightly different package. They are words typically used to denigrate the value of the film in question, very often going hand-in-hand with 'lazy' and 'dull', frequently representing idle film-making at its most grating and frustrating. But, for some magical reason(s), that is not this case with Gifted. Instead, Gifted is a charming, delightful exercise in simplicity and restraint, towing the line between sincere and sanguine and never tying itself up to complicate its rather straightforward narrative. I admire Gifted for passing the basics with a sophistication and deftness, revelling in its ability to passing the fundamentals with flying colours and rarely overworking itself.
At the age of seven, Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) demonstrates remarkable mathematic abilities that supersedes the limitations of the public school curriculum; as such, on the first day of first grade, she is offered a full scholarship to study at a private school for gifted students. Her uncle and de facto guardian, Frank (Chris Evans), turns the opportunity down though, determined to prevent Mary meeting the same fate that befell her mother - a promising but damaged mathematician who took her own life. The film journeys with the pair navigating the challenges of a court case and an estranged grandmother, all while trying to understand what is best for Mary. Alongside Evans and Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer star, rounding out an impressive cast brimming with talent.
Gifted does not tell the most revolutionary or exciting story in the world but it executes a simple, touching one superbly. Tom Flynn delivers a smart and nuanced screenplay that places the central relationship between Frank and Mary at the forefront of the picture, while still finding time and balance to incorporate interesting secondary dynamics. This helps to render some of the themes more prominently and develops the supporting characters effectively, meaning we do care for the five main characters, no matter how much we may disagree with them. At 101 minutes, it never has time to overstay its welcome and hurries along at a brisk and efficient pace; though preference alone, there are elements - such as the transition to the final reveal - that I personally would tighten or adjust, but it is inoffensive and well-spirited and it is refreshing to encounter a film tht never tries to over complicate itself or compensate for a less than original narrative. I'm not ashamed to say that it really tugged on my heartstrings and left a tear in my eye.
Assembled is a rather talented cast who each impact the story being told, no matter how small or large there roles turns out to be. Chris Evans proves he is not just muscle, providing a caring and thoughtful performance of a man, somewhat blindly, leading a child through a world he is unfamiliar with himself. Striking an exceptional chemistry with young McKenna Grace, who is truly one to watch, the pair are believable and engaging as a father-daughter type with a twist. Grace is witty and more than ably keeps up with her more experienced co-stars, wonderfully lovable and captivating as a beyond-her-years girl. Jenny Slate steps out of her comfort zone and provides her best performance to date, playing the kind and caring 'girl next door' type that makes her instantly engaging. Lindsay Duncan tackles the 'uptight British mother' role with a grace and sophistication you should expect but never descends into melodrama or archetypes for the role, wistfully leading Mary down a path she wishes her daughter could have seen through. And then there's Octavia Spencer and I formally begin the petition to give her a role in every single film. Playing the bubbly and endearing neighbour, Spencer's natural charm seeps into the character and strengthens her supporting turn.
Webb is another valuable player in the film and manages to derive an absolute beauty within the constraints of a small budget. One scene mid-way through the film is so luscious - simply capturing Frank and Mary enjoying themselves against the falling, glowing sunset - but it is in Webb's bravery to keep the shot rolling, without any cuts, that allows for it to be quite as moving as it is. That one moment is unbelievably simple but executed terrifically, perfectly encapsulating my belief that Gifted excels most by doing the small things so efficiently, making the most out of the bare necessities and therefore not requiring any unneeded flourishes or add-ons to impress. Gifted rarely pushes boundaries or challenges conventions but it does not need to, shining with the basics that are so often overlooked in the chase for something supposedly more exciting, or thrilling, or new. I really admired Gifted for this.
Maybe a lack of challenge means Gifted cannot rise any higher than the below mark and maybe it means I'm not exactly rushing back to see it again - but that does not matter. Gifted impacted me emotionally, rendered its themes and characters as genuine and human and does everything it attempts with a noticeable effort and it almost always succeeds by doing so. When I thought of Gifted as safe or formulaic I wasn't thinking of it in a negative way, instead admiring its comfort in displaying a genuine human story without the thrills and spills that Hollywood so very often dictates and chases. Bravo, Gifted.
Summary: Gifted basks in its own simplicity by completing the basics - very often overlooked in the chase for something more outlandish - with flying colours. A marvellous cast, solid direction and strong script work means Gifted is really quite the present and delight during the onslaught of sequels and special effects this summer.