Saturday, 2 December 2017

Movie Review: Gifted (2017)



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The plot: After the death of her mother, seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) was left in the care of her uncle Frank (Chris Evans). When Mary’s school teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) discovers Mary’s talent for complex mathematics, it sparks a debate between Frank and Mary’s grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) about whether the opportunities Frank is allowing her niece are fulfilling her potential. As the matter gets brought into court, Mary’s ultimate fate rests on who can make a better case for what is right for the child.




Playing a precocious child on screen, especially one this young, is a rather tricky prospect. It involves someone far too young to be expressing such ideas being able to successfully express them, while also making them seem wholly natural to be spoken by that person in the first place. Words cannot express how many child characters I’ve seen in fiction that both look and feel like they were written by adults with an adult’s view of the world; it’s not a good fit, to say the least. Mckenna Grace, in no uncertain terms, pulls off that gambit with surprising ease. Not only is every word out of her mouth not that difficult to take seriously, when she’s called on to emote, she is heartbreaking. Evans as her primary caregiver works really well at balancing out his working-class sensibilities with an understanding of what Mary would want in her formative life, making the scenes between him and her incredibly warm and inviting. Jenny Slate as Mary’s initial teacher is probably the most natural with her dialogue, presenting her character as someone who has more going for her than just teaching.

Octavia Spencer as Frank’s neighbour is a very welcome addition, helped by how this is a film far more worthy of her talents than something like The Shit Shack, and Glenn Plummer as Frank’s lawyer takes a break from talking about how everybody got AIDS and shit to fit nicely into the main dynamic during the courtroom scenes. And then there’s Lindsay Duncan… yikes. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with her performance, as she does remarkably well at balancing out her own conflicting views; it’s just the character herself is insanely loathsome, which I’ll explain further in a bit, and the fact that she doesn’t ever reach the point of “Could someone please take this woman off-screen so I can enjoy this?” is frankly astounding.

As good as the actors all are on their own terms, it’s the relationships and chemistry between them where Tom Flynn’s writing really starts to shine through. One of the bigger conceits of the film is how all people, even those of extraordinary abilities, should be regarded as people first, and credit to Flynn in that he makes every character here feel exactly that. Yes, even Evelyn, a woman who describes her own daughter who committed suicide as “weak”, feels like a real person and not just a composite of all things heinous. The film as a whole is very emotionally-driven, emphasizing EQ rather than IQ in character conversations, and between the mostly-warm dialogue (pretty sure Duncan learnt how to breathe frozen water vapour instead of human air for this role) and the aptitude of the cast saying it, the emotional side of things rings very true. It taps into catharsis, for both positive and negative emotions, without delving too deep into melodrama that would hinder the story behind the words.

And speaking of the story behind the words, let’s get a rather obvious comparison out of the way: This film’s premise is indeed very similar to X+Y (A Beautiful Young Mind), which I covered last year. However, where that film kept its focus around the genius in question, this film delves further into the possible outcomes concerning pushing said genius to fulfill their potential. We see how the death of Mary’s mother, along with the circumstances that led to it, affected the family but we also see how they in turn reacted to it. Frank focuses on making Mary comfortable in life, allowing her a “normal” life that isn’t strictly defined by mathematics. Evelyn, by contrast, pushed her daughter to seemingly volatile extremes to fulfill her own potential, and appears to have a real disdain for intellect that isn’t utilized. Now, as someone who has covered more than a few products of idiocy on this blog, there is an argument to be made about how even-handed this is… maybe. Such an argument won’t be made by me because this film takes an inordinate amount of effort into painting Evelyn as the absolute antagonist of this story. Aside from the aforementioned glib perspective on her daughter’s death, which is of a brand that is guaranteed to piss me off, it’s clear that her actions ended up having a far more negative effect than she is willing to admit. But does that make her wrong?

I mentioned in my review for X+Y that my own school experiences involved being put into an advanced English largely against my wishes due to high test scores. I should also mention that, despite being consistently told throughout my life by adults that I had real potential, I stuck to mainstream schools for my entire life up to this point. And I couldn’t be happier for that choice. What some people tend to under-realize when it comes to those with higher intelligence is that human beings are not computers. No matter how intelligent a person is, no one person exists solely to perform calculations, create chemical formulas, or anything else attached to higher learning. Intellectual needs are a factor, but so are emotional and psychological needs. While the more formative years are where our brains are most active and receptive to learning, which is why it is far harder to learn a new language as an adult rather than as a child or teenager, it is also where people’s outlook on the world begins to take shape.

Between Frank and Evelyn duking it out with words and custody claims, the film shows that there needs to be a balance between allowing a person’s mind to expand where it can reach and letting them have their own life separate from that. I was given the chance to live life as any other kid, and because of that chance to let things grow more naturally, it led me to where I am today. I’ve seen and even experienced what academic pressure to succeed can do to a person… and quite frankly, I don’t see the potential rewards being worth the risks, especially as they are shown here in how they affected Mary’s mother and could go on to affect her. What makes this film’s understanding of human emotion work as well as it does is that, along with being utilized by capable actors and capable filmmakers, it feels real as someone who was in a similar circumstance once upon a time.

All in all, this is a very stirring and resonant story about the struggle between being a kid and being a genius, with all the rather unsettling outcomes that can result from that. The acting is fantastic, with Mckenna Grace absolutely knocking it out of the park, the dialogue may reach serious unpleasantries but is never not engaging, and the story itself highlights aspects of child development that are worth keeping in mind. Knowing how neurologically atypical people are still being given the hard shoulder nowadays for a number of reasons, I’m quite thankful that this film exists, both in concept and in its extremely deft execution. It ranks higher than Logan Lucky, as this film’s relative simplicity ends up leading to more engrossing results for me personally. I watch films partly to get a better understanding of the world around me, and seeing a film that I can relate to on this level will never not be welcome. However, since this is still a rather partisan depiction of the issue, and it feels just a touch sanitized because of that, it falls short of A Monster Calls, a film that goes hard and heavy with its own approach to emotional revelation.

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