Marc Webb continues to prove his directorial prowess in his foray into the family drama genre. His signature wit, coupled with riveting performances by an all-star cast, hits all the notes we’re expecting from a film like Gifted. It is also undeniably genuine at its core; moving in a very real way. Spoilers ahead.
Webb’s Spider-man films were definitely inspired and ambitious. The Amazing Spider-man will always hold a special place in my heart, but I am glad he’s moved on towards something that seems conceptually smaller, yet remains similarly fulfilling and zealous in terms of narrative. Gifted‘s plot is deceptively simple. I’ve seen critics call it ‘predictable’ – and I suppose that I can see why – but I wouldn’t use that term to describe it. The film breathes new life into an old-school narrative by filling in the gaps between a series of events with what can only be described as authenticity. That seems like such a gigantic claim, and veracity is different for everyone, but all I’m saying is every relationship in the film feels real to me. I could believe that these people – despite their star-studded nature – were members of a regular community together.
The film is all about heart and soul. It’s a slightly different take on Chris Evans’ charm. It’s definitely a role that we’ve not seen from him, even though he has played characteristically Good people. Rather than bringing boyishness and naivete to the part, Evans appears to be the perfect epitome of an everyman – and the kind that you actually want to meet. Frank Adler is far from perfect, and makes questionable decisions left and right, but his heart is in the right place. Of course, I wonder whether the role would have felt the same without someone as effortlessly likeable as Evans, whose chiselled features have graced cinema screens regularly for well over a decade. His roles have steadily gone from mischievous frat boy to full-grown responsible adult, and it’s like he’s finally really comfortable acting. There is no excess nervous energy buzzing beneath him when he plays someone like Frank, or like Steve Rogers. Arguably, he’s even more of a natural as the former, simply because there is more room for error with this character.
But Evans alone wouldn’t have sufficed if his primary acting partner – Mckenna Grace – wasn’t as precocious, as fearless, and as utterly committed to their familial relationship as she is. Again, it’s about believing a relationship can work and the parent-child dynamic has an added layer here where Mary Adler knows precisely that she’s living with her uncle. There is so much honesty between both actors, which compounds what we see onscreen. Grace says so much without uttering a word; whether it’s just in her eyes or the tiniest twitch of a smile or something more boisterous and physical, she nails it all and makes you fall in love with her. I have a favourite moment between Mary and Frank towards the end that I simply have to share, and that’s when she pushes the corners of his mouth up after they’ve just had an emotional reunion. Mary says to him, “You’re smiling.” It’s the smallest of gestures, but shows how Grace maneuvres between observant and snappy Mary, and the part of that child that’s rather innocent. It’s a cute moment, and a deeply moving one too.
The supporting cast plays a more generic part in service of Mary and Frank’s story, but at least it’s played to perfection. If anything, it just makes you wish you knew more about Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, and Lindsay Duncan’s characters. There are minor conversations peppered throughout the film, all hinting at these women’s histories and it’s all fascinating. It’s part of creating a larger filmic world and atmosphere, which is further facilitated by production design and cinematography that never feels over-the-top and unnecessary. It’s perfunctory filmmaking without ugliness or boredom. Everything evokes real life, whether it’s in the hand-held camerawork or the limited depth of field.
The entire package melds together without feeling overly saccharine, but nor is it a total downer. It’s a great mix of hopefulness and realism – or at least, it feels as such, because you can invest in these people’s overarching relatability. Gifted doesn’t set out to create ideal characters or outstanding, jaw-dropping settings and that’s part of its magic. Normalised and heartfelt, it doesn’t have to push the envelope when it comes to aestheticism in order to be exceptional.