In 2004, I fell in love with a movie called Garden State. They won’t admit it now, but most people who watched the movie in the first few weeks after its release also loved it. It was very well reviewed, had a hell of a soundtrack, and spoke profoundly to the self-involved aimless nature of our 20s. Within a few months, however, the Internet had sank its claws into Garden State and ripped it to shreds. For years, in fact, every pop culture website was required to feature a slam piece on Garden State and a rebuttal defense (we are no exception). The whole thing soured me on Garden State, and most everyone else, too. People that avow a love for Garden State now would probably be considered contrarians.
The same thing happened with 2007’s Juno, the aughts’ grandaddy of whimsiquirkilicious films. I loved it, and then the Internet ruined it, and by the time Jennifer’s Body came out two years later, the name Diablo Cody was toxic (ironically, though hated upon its release, Jennifer’s Body has gained a small but deserved cult following in more recent years).
It happened again with The Artist a charming little silent movie that became a victim of its own success when it won the Oscar. Nobody hated The Artist until The Academy loved it. The same thing — on a smaller scale — happened to Slumdog Millionaire, a lovely, well-received film later labeled overrated after it won the Oscar, although nothing about the film changed between its release and Oscar night except the public’s perception of it.
La La Land is the latest film to fall victim to its own success. I’ve never seen it, but I hate it. I missed an opportunity to watch it early on, and by the time another opportunity to see it arrived, I refused. The Internet had poisoned the well (and we here at Pajiba did plenty of poisoning). I didn’t want to see it, because I didn’t want to have an opinion. What if I liked it? Would film twitter ostracize me? And if I hated it, is it because of the movie, or because of the perception of the movie?
But Moonlight never suffered from any kind of backlash, and you know why? It’s not just because it was the better film — quality does not make anything immune to social media. It’s because no one saw it. La La Land made $150 million at the box office. Moonlight made $27 million. Everyone had an opinion about La La Land. Relatively very few people had an opinion about Moonlight, and I am thankful for that, because it means that Moonlight will continue to live on as my second favorite movie of 2016 behind Hell or High Water. That movie also managed to avoid a backlash despite a few Oscar nominations because it was never very popular, and its audience came to it very slowly and over a course of weeks from August to November and then on streaming over the holidays.
That’s perfect: Seen by enough people to be beloved, but not by so many people that it cultivates a backlash. Ultimately, these end up being films with the most staying power. Think Stranger than Fiction or Waitress, or The Zero Effect or more recently, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the funniest film of 2016. I expect it will stay that way because people are discovering it slowly and over time and there’s never going to be a critical mass to turn on it.
The latest film in my estimation to fit into this category is Gifted, a sweet, modest, sensational little gem of a movie. Most people know it as “That movie where Chris Evans and Jenny Slate met,” but it’s more than that: It’s a heartwarming, lovely little thing that is ever so quietly adding $3 or $4 million a week at the box office based mostly on very quiet word of mouth (It’s made $12 million so far). I only caught it last night because I bailed on The Circle after Kristy’s drubbing of the movie and remembered that Kristy had written some very nice things about Gifted. It also came from Marc Webb, the director of (500) Days of Summer, another one of those indie flicks that I loved until the backlash soured the movie for me and everyone else, but I wanted to see what Webb could come up with after striking out in the Spider-Man movies.
Gifted is marvelous, but not so marvelous that it would fetch Oscar nominations. Chris Evans is remarkable in this; he’s like a young Affleck without any of the baggage. It’s not his muscles on display here, it’s that voice. Man, that’s a voice. He should be making a lot more films where he has more than 15 lines of dialogue. And while Jenny Slate is fine in it, too, it’s the child actress Mckenna Grace who steals every single scene she is in. She plays an adorable 7-year-old math prodigy going through a heartbreaking custody battle between her uncle (Evans) and grandmother (Lindsay Duncan).
I don’t want to say any more than that, because honestly, I don’t want any of you to see it. Because if you do, you might have opinions and I don’t want your goddamn opinions taking anything away from what was a perfect moviegoing experience: I went in with little expectation, left pleasantly surprised and with a warm heart, and I drove home and woke up my kids to hug them. That’s a good night, and the best thing about it is, I’ll never have to defend my love for Gifted, because very few of you are ever going to see it. Let’s keep it that way.