Box Office Democracy: Gifted
I feel like I never see movies like Gifted anymore. Gifted is a smaller movie, almost completely devoid of the spectacle that snobs complain about in modern cinema. It’s as anonymous a movie as one can get from the director of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, the star of Captain America and Octavia Spencer. It’s funny when it wants to be, touching when it tries it’s absolute hardest, and if you’re willing to suspend an ample amount of disbelief there’s a heartwarming message to be found here.
There’s a reasonably famous book on screenwriting called Save the Cat. It’s a guide to crafting marketable scripts, there’s good advice in there, and it sold a ton of copies. The title refers to the need to have your main character do something early in the film to get the audience on their side; something like saving a cat. I’m telling you this because in the first scene of Gifted we are introduced to Fred, the one-eyed cat who was adopted by Frank the protagonist of this film (Chris Evans). He assures his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) that while he doesn’t generally like cats, he likes this one. It’s such a transparent use of this trope that was the title for this wildly successful screenwriting book that this is either an insane coincidence or a stunning lack of self-awareness on the part of the writer. (I know this probably won’t occur to 95% of the viewing audience who have never read any books on how to write a screenplay but it was distracting for me.)
Other than the whole cat bit (which also comes back in the third act for extra emotional stakes but I said I was moving on) the story is suitably interesting. Mary goes to her first day of school and is clearly a prodigy, and through her being a precocious scamp who is good at math and beating the hell out of children twice her age she gets the attention of her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) who does not like Frank. A custody battle ensues, and the crux of the film is if Mary should be allowed to have a “normal” life or if she should be pushed to be the mathematical whiz her mother was and that she seems to have the potential to be. It’s kind of interesting that this film just assumes that mathematical aptitude is some kind of hereditary trait that was passed through three generations. I could see that an overbearing mother like Evelyn could make her daughter in to a mathematician through constant effort but I’m not sure how Mary, orphaned as a young child and raised by smart but not genius Frank, is on the same level. I suppose it isn’t exactly the point but it’s a weird universe to assume.
A lot of the movie is tied up in this custody battle and I like a good courtroom scene as much as the next person, but the real joy in the movie is away from all of that. The scenes with Octavia Spencer as Roberta, the next-door neighbor, and Jenny Slate as Bonnie, Mary’s first grade teacher, are universally the best ones. Chris Evans is great at trading barbs with his inexplicably British mother but I’d much rather see him having quasi-meaningful conversations with Jenny Slate. This is the first dramatic role I can remember for Slate, and while she might not be the second coming of Meryl Streep she’s fun and interesting— and most importantly, a breath of fresh air for a part that sometimes feels like it cycles between the same six actresses over and over again. Octavia Spencer is a delight in everything she does; I don’t feel compelled to sell anyone on her. Spencer has a small part here, but she talks the most like a real person and that’s worth a lot.
Gifted is a fun movie. It’s nice to see Evans and Slate playing against type. It’s a heartwarming story that never twists itself in to being a downer. I sort of wish that the end result of all of Frank’s handwringing about whether he’s going to screw up Mary’s life was answered by someone telling him that he will definitely screw up and it will definitely be okay because that’s what parenting is. That isn’t what this movie is though, and it’s okay. I liked watching Gifted and I would be absolutely thrilled to stumble upon it again on cable on a slow afternoon or on an airplane, it’s the perfect movie for those contexts.