Abby Olcese’s Digital TIFF Diary

Watching a festival from home is a weird experience. In theory it’s an exciting prospect: you can stay in your pajamas! No frantic running between venues or rush queues! You can snuggle with your pets and/or nearby loved ones while you watch! The reality however, is after a couple of days of not leaving your couch for several hours straight except to go to the bathroom, make dinner and feed your pets, you start to lose touch with reality. Like the earliest days of the pandemic, you forget what time, or even what day it is. It gets weird.

It’s even stranger when the movies you have access to digitally, and the movies your colleagues are watching in person, are vastly different. Such was the case with this year’s hybrid Toronto International Film Festival, which initially promised a smorgasbord of digital cinematic content to critics who chose not to make the trip for pandemic-based reasons. As distributors increasingly decided to offer their festival entries as theatrical-only (or Canadian press-only) experiences, those online offerings kept shrinking, even leading up to the week of the festival itself. TIFF’s traditionally genre-diverse selection still offered a number of interesting experiences, however, even if they didn’t include the festival’s glitzier, star-studded offerings.

Listening to Kenny G, created for Bill Simmons’ Music Box HBO series (the same one that gave us the recently-embattled Alanis Morrisette doc Jagged) is an oddball delight of a documentary from director Penny Lane. Lane tackles Kenny G, the polarizing smooth jazz pioneer and frequent pop culture punchline, through interviews with music critics, fans and the musician himself. All of it creates a larger portrait of the artist’s creative mindset, what his music means to people, and why we love to hate it.

Lane approaches her film with the playful, judgment-free curiosity that made previous works like Hail Satan? and Nuts! so entertaining. The documentary touches on Kenny G’s place in the history of easy listening and smooth jazz, his confusing legacy in the jazz world, and the man’s own beliefs about his art. 

It turns out Kenny G doesn’t sweat the haters–after all, he’s got tons of money and a boatload of awards, why should he care? His artistic vision, however, is a little more complicated. His weird blend of genuine artistic passion, competitive nature and corporate sensibility keep shifting throughout the film, and it left me both fascinated and divided on him. I will still, however, keep playing Miracles every December. As a child of the 90s, that nostalgia still runs deep.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is another portrait of a popular artist, this one dramatic, and about an illustrator whose work dominated turn-of-the-century England. Louis Wain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was a prolific artist whose whimsical pictures of cats were beloved by many, but whose personal life was marked by tragedy and mental illness. 

Louis is the only male out of a family of six, making him the default patriarch after his father dies. However, he’s completely unsuited to the job, bumbling and following eccentric flights of fancy, much to the frustration of his oldest sister (Andrea Riseborough). He briefly finds happiness with Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), the family’s governess. After she dies, however, his grief and work consume him.

Director Will Sharpe combines quirky visuals and wry narration from Olivia Colman with genuine tragedy as he depicts the details of Wain’s life. The aesthetics and little surprises along the way are fun, but once the story takes a sad turn, it becomes unrelentingly bleak; even the movie’s many cute felines don’t help. It’s difficult to parse out what we’re meant to take away from this story, apart from, perhaps, a real-life example of communicating delight in the face of sorrow. Sitting through two hours of said sorrow, however, is a big ask, no matter how cleverly it’s presented.

Bummer though it is, Louis Wain isn’t nearly as maudlin as Theodore Shapiro’s The Starling, about a couple (Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd) mourning the death of their infant daughter. Shapiro’s film tries to aim for lighthearted folk wisdom amidst its tale of psychological woe and ultimate growth. Unfortunately, it’s fatally lacking in actual wisdom.

McCarthy plays Lilly, who holds down a job at a grocery store while grieving the sudden passing of her baby. Her husband Jack (O’Dowd) has been completely incapacitated by the loss, so much so that he’s wound up in a treatment facility. While working in her garden, Lilly gets repeatedly dive-bombed by a nesting starling, and her contentious relationship with the bird somehow facilitates her journey to recovery, along with the intervention of a therapist-turned-veterinarian (Kevin Kline).

The Starling wants to play its audience’s strings like a fiddle, but frequently mistakes playing for stomping. Shapiro’s tonally bizarre movie veers between depressingly tragic and lightly funny, sometimes within the same scene. It features behavior normal human beings simply do not do, including Kline’s therapist-veterinarian Larry Fine treating the injured bird after McCarthy strikes it with a rock, and McCarthy allowing said creature to recuperate loose in her home. 

In addition to all this, The Starling contains some of the least helpful therapist-patient relationships committed to film. Kline’s character has no real personal insight, and no real arc to speak of, making you wonder what his purpose even is. On that note, Shapiro also makes the strange, expensive choice of using Timothy Olyphant and Daveed Diggs in tiny roles that don’t require their level of skill or charm. It contains no real recommendable qualities, even as an ironic viewing. 

On the flipside, Clio Barnard uses her Ken Loach-esque realist approach to lovely effect in Ali & Ava, her pseudo-take on Rainer Wener Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is an affable West Yorkshire landlord whose marriage is on the rocks. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a teacher and single mom of five grown kids. The pair meet when Ali helps his tenants drop their daughter off at the school where the slightly older Ava works, instantly bonding over a shared love of music. Their new relationship is challenged by Ava’s clingy son Callum (Shaun Thomas), and Ali’s complicated marital situation and disapproving family.

Both Ali and Ava are inspired by people Barnard met while working on The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, and her artistic connection to that region shows in her honest depiction of life there. It’s a loving, warts-and-all portrait, and Akhtar and Rushbrook actively participate as they engage with neighbors, friends, family and each other. Akhtar, who’s probably more recognizable to American audiences in smaller, comedy-adjacent roles (he’s also in Louis Wain), particularly shines here, giving Ali subtle interiority and soul. 

You Are Not My Mother is the feature debut of Irish filmmaker Kate Dolan, and displays promise, despite inconsistent pacing. Char (Hazel Doupe) is a smart kid with a difficult home life. Her bipolar mom, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), barely functions, and her occult-dabbling grandmother (Ingrid Craigie) isn’t able to help much. After dropping Char off at school one day, Angela disappears for 48 hours, then mysteriously returns, with a different, vindictive energy. With help from Grandma and new friend Suzanne (Jordanne Jones), Char tries to find out what’s really going on.

You Are Not My Mother contains some effective moments and several excellent shots. However, its gut-punches are few and far between. Bracken’s physicality is excellent, particularly as Angela starts behaving in strange, unsettling new ways, causing us to question whether she’s suffering some supernatural ailment, or if we’re just getting a particularly troubling insight into her mental state. When the movie finally commits to its otherworldly nature, it picks up steam significantly, but overall it feels like a short film stretched to feature length. As a director, Dolan’s got a good eye, but she’s still learning how to effectively structure a longer movie.

Ultimately, the unevenness of this year’s TIFF felt like an accurate reflection of where movies are in this baffling, transitional year. If you’re ready to go back to a theater, the goods are there, but even those feel in limited supply. The situation is even more disappointing if you’re still playing it safe and watching new things from home. This year’s festival felt like both a tease of the promise of returning to normal, and the practical bummer that life still actually is while we’re still figuring everything out.

Abby Olcese is a film critic and pop culture writer. In addition to writing for Crooked Marquee, she is also the film editor at The Pitch magazine. Her work has appeared in Sojourners Magazine, Birth. Movies. Death., SlashFilm and more. She lives in Kansas City.

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