Monday, April 2, 2018

Gifted (2017)

rating: ****

the story: A gifted seven-year-old will either live with her uncle or her grandmother, who have conflicting visions of her future.

what it's all about: In the interests of full disclosure, I'm several steps away from the subject matter.  For most of my niece's two and a half years of life, I've been asked to step in and help raise her, and recently been confronted with the gut-wrenching thought of being asked to step back and just be an uncle.  I won't really go into further details on that, but suffice to say, I have an idea of what the heart of this story's about, and so on that level it certainly speaks to me personally.  This may affect my objectivity.

I've been a fan of director Marc Webb, a fairly big fan, since his breakthrough debut film (500) Days of Summer, a heartbreaking drama about a relationship that turns out poorly and an attempt to deal with that.  Webb then directed The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, both of which continued his trademark ability to speak to uncomfortable emotional truths.  Webb is a filmmaker who understands that life is complicated, whether or not you're a superhero.  Gifted is a fine extension of his filmography.  It asks you to put aside any particular prejudices you may have about what's in the best interests of gifted children.  Naturally, because that's what society tends to tell you, a gifted child should be given every opportunity to reach their potential.  But for every Mozart, there's a Diane Adler.

Diane is Mary Adler's mother, or rather, she was.  Diane committed suicide when Mary was half a year old.  Before she died, Diane visited her brother Frank in Florida.  Frank took that to mean his sister was entrusting Mary with him.  We catch up with Mary and Frank when he's decided to put her in school, as he says so she'll learn social skills.  She does have a friend, Frank's neighbor Roberta, but Roberta's older than Frank!  Frank just wants Mary to have a normal life.  He saw what happened to his sister, and desperately wants better for Mary.

His mother sees it different.  At this point she comes back into their life and demands custody.  Mary's principal has contacted her after several incidents leave a negative impression on her ability to adjust, regardless of Frank's wishes.  Like her daughter and mother, Diane was a math wiz.  In fact, she was close to solving a "Millennium Prize Problem," which would have been a surefire lifetime achievement, the culmination of all her work and potential.  Frank thinks their mother push Diane too hard.  The court ruling on the dispute sides with her.  Mary is placed in a foster home as a compromise.

The whole situation is really about who relates to Mary on a human level.  Clearly it's Frank.  Too often we forget that beyond everything else it's really our ability to empathize that's our best attribute, to see worth in the person and not just what they can do for you.  Or as Mary says, Frank loved her before she was smart.  He loved her for her.

Critics who were only looking for the dramatic arc and how cathartic the climax felt overlooked the message, and what it meant for Mary and Frank, and its greater applications, especially in a society that has all but eliminated basic acceptance.  We're always saying, you need to have a reason to be accepted.  We've all become cogs in one machine or another, we've all been assigned labels.  This is a movie that says there's something else worth embracing.  Mary's best friend is a one-eyed cat named Fred.  Mary doesn't care that Fred is missing an eye.  She loves him because she loves him.  It's not because he's damaged, anymore than you should care about Mary because her mother died or Frank because of the sacrifices he's made. 

Mary's teacher begins to understand all of this pretty rapidly.  By the time Mary shows up in her classroom, Bonnie notices her brash attitude right away, but she also notices that challenging Mary constructively produces constructive results.  And she becomes attracted to Frank not because he's played by hunky Chris Evans, but because he's endlessly intriguing.  This isn't a movie that ends with a happy, bow-tied ending.  Bonnie and Frank don't end up in a relationship as an official new set of parents for Mary.  We aren't even assured that Mary ends up having the best of both worlds, even though we do get to see where Frank compromises in ways that make sense for Mary, giving her university-level classrooms and girl scout social time.  It qualifies as heartwarming.

Evans has long intrigued me.  Along with a lot of other people, he was the most interesting element of the first two Fantastic Four movies.  He was also a standout in material like The Losers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  And of course as Captain America.  Here he's in an approachable mold of Captain America, rather than the jokier role he used to specialize in.  He proves he's ready for mature, nonsuperhero roles, possibly the best of the Avengers crop in that regard. 

Octavia Spencer is a revelation in this movie.  Other directors have a way of making her look like a caricature, but Webb keeps her human.  You can always tell the true talent of a director in how they turn perception completely around like that.  Jenny Slate is credible as the teacher.  The real find, as seemed to happen in several movies in 2017, is child actress Mckenna Grace.  Child actors are notoriously a mixed bag.  In years past most were expected to be merely precocious; Grace joins a recent tradition of finding real talent.  Without her the movie would probably fall apart, no matter how appealing Evans and his adult costars are.  As it is, this is one you'll be able to enjoy without reservation for years to come.

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