Originally published May 3rd, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
No one wants to feel like they’ve gone back to square one in their professional lives, but sometimes it’s what we need to reinvent ourselves and pave a better way forward. After Marc Webb showed his talents behind the camera with his directorial debut, (500) Days of Summer, Sony thought it best to bring him in to lead their Spider-Man franchise revival. If you’ve paid any remote amount of attention to the horrendous spell of bad luck Sony has experienced in the last few years – though partially their own doing, certainly – you know it didn’t work out as anyone had hoped.
Though The Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t perfect, it effectively displayed the new feature-length film director’s potential after being handed the reins to a substantial undertaking. But, by comparison, the sequel was such an inconceivable failure that perhaps Webb’s ambitions had finally exceeded his grasp. Admittedly, he was given substandard material to work with, but he couldn’t elevate it beyond its objective worth. Now, Webb is essentially back where he started: directing a Fox Searchlight indie drama to get his career down the right path once more.
Unfortunately, Gifted is a misguided first step. In this wannabe heart-warmer, writer Tom Flynn’s first feature length credit since 1993’s Watch It, Chris Evans co-stars with Mckenna Grace about a man taking care of his exceptionally intelligent young niece, until his exacting mother (Lindsay Duncan) arrives to take her away, launching a custody battle that brings out the toxicity and tragedy of their shared past.
The film was first given a limited opening of 56 theaters nationwide on April 7th, but five days later, that theater count expanded to 1,146. Bearing these numbers in mind, I have one simple question: is there really such thing as a manipulative, coldly-calculated, overly-cutesy melodrama too small for a wide(r) release? The film’s advertising may not try to hide its intentions, yet is still slickly deceptive in covering up just how relentlessly saccharine the narrative is. There are films that are openly transparent about their crowd-pleasing identity and still craft an engaging story around it, such as Their Finest and Hidden Figures, and then there are films like Gifted.
Believe me, I’m not trying to downplay the significance such films play in acting as escapism in its purest, if also heavily manufactured form, but never should they let story and character arcs, depth and development take a backseat to however many times one can get away with cynically tugging on a viewer’s heartstrings. Beyond the trials for custody over Mary (Grace), the narrative exhibits little to no focus, bouncing around various character dynamics that are merely used for the purposes of tone rather than deeper plot or protagonist exploration. By the picture’s closing shots, their compilation into a cohesive story renders each scene and the relationships they depict as incomprehensible given the context of succeeding sequences.
For what it’s worth, Evans, Grace, Duncan, Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer are all charming in their own right and occasionally make their scenes fairly watchable, showing commitment to their respective characters – Grace’s performance as a mathematical prodigy being most impressive considering her age. Though their fictional personas are rendered one-dimensional by the story’s structure and general lack of interest in further thought, they do often implant particular emotional truths that offer something redeeming enough to engage our genuine emotions rather than those crudely extracted from us. That is, until the dialogue takes sudden shifts from heartfelt wit and realism to painfully ill-thought impracticality, particularly affecting Duncan’s Evelyn to the point of needless antagonism.
Like the film’s frequently baffling choice to shoot handheld, Gifted is a shaky attempt at naturalizing its predictable, artificial premise for the purposes of wringing every last drop of disingenuous drama for mass consumption. One moment, it seems as though the film might be a thoughtful examination of a fraught relationship between mother and son, where both parties are simply looking after what they believe is best for the child, in addition to its central concept. The next, the narrative rears an uglier head that unnecessarily paints each side as a traditional ‘good vs. evil’ dichotomy.
There was much else that could have been done with the premise to create a more positively engaging drama, but either the filmmakers were too afraid to delve deeper, or just didn’t care enough.