For reasons that remain elusive, “In-person TIFF” has always been my personal benchmark for things going “back to normal” after COVID. I last attended in fall of 2019; 2020’s edition was, of course, entirely virtual, and though last year’s boasted an in-person component, the Canadians mostly asked Americans to stay home (politely – they are Canadians, after all). A fair number of us were still wearing masks – “after COVID” seems like an increasingly unlikely scenario – but everything else was, indeed, back to normal at the Toronto Film Festival: giant crowds, big premieres, awards whispers, and more movies than I could possibly see. Here are some thoughts on a few.
Anna Kendrick does sparkling light comedy so well that it’s easy to forget what a fine dramatic actor she can be. Alice Darling should remedy that. She stars as a career woman in a long-term relationship whose two BFFs invite her on a weeklong birthday getaway in a remote cabin, where they end up with a front-row seat to witness their friend going down a bad road. “He doesn’t hurt me or anything,” she insists, but there are tiny red flags and microaggressions, and the script by Alanna Francis fully understands how this toxic thinking gets into your bloodstream.
Kendrick matches the emotional intensity with uncomfortable physicality – the tics and twitches she uses as coping mechanisms, the compulsive behaviors and disordered eating that signal to her friends, and to the audience, the direness of her situation. By the midpoint, we’re tuned into the way she breathes from scene to scene, and what it tells us about her turmoil, and she has a panic attack scene that’s her most raw, vulnerable, and delicate acting to date.
Sanctuary, meanwhile, features two of our best young actors – Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott – in a two-hander that shows off the depths of their gifts. Set entirely in a gorgeous, expensive hotel suite, it opens with what appears to be a tense business meeting, as Rebecca (Qualley) interviews Hal (Abbott) for a background check for a high-profile CEO position. But the questions get personal, and Hal objects: “This isn’t what I wanted. It’s not in the script… I wrote it out so you would know what to say.”
Rebecca is a dominatrix, you see, and Hal is her client, a 35-year-old hotel heir who meets with her regularly, but knows he must stop, since he’s about to take over the family business. What follows is an ever-shifting power play, a series of transactions and turn-ons, a torrent of lies and confessions. They’re both acting on multiple levels, from the roleplaying opening to the various exaggerated and threatening versions of themselves they take on to try and gain the upper hand. It’s a smart movie, very funny and very sexy, managing the tricky highwire act of taking kink seriously but not too seriously.
The Philomena team of director Stephen Frears, co-writer/co-star Steve Coogan, and co-writer Jeff Pope reunite for The Lost King, another true story about an extraordinary woman. This time it’s Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins), an Edinburgh woman approaching middle age in a state of flux who takes her son to a production of Richard III for a school assignment and finds herself, well, haunted afterwards; she keeps seeing Richard through windows and on the streets (“This is private property,” she stammers, when he turns up in her garden), and she decides to dedicate herself to rehabilitating his image, and finding his long-unknown grave.
Much of this – the relationship with this figment of her imagination, a climax centered on an archaeological dig in a car park – shouldn’t work. But it does, thanks primarily to Hawkins’ nuanced performance as a prickly, headstrong woman of intense, visceral contradictions. “They never miss a chance to put me in my place,” she explains late in the film. “It’s exhausting.” And she’s not wrong.
It wouldn’t be a film festival without at least one quirky indie ensemble comedy/drama. TIFF had Wildflower, with Mad Man’s radiant Kiernan Shipka as a cynical high schooler telling her life story as she lays in a coma. Her parents are intellectually disabled, so it’s basically a cross between The Other Sister and Coda, and the results are about as dire as that sounds; lotta twinkly pop song montages, a sappy teen romance, and just when you think it can’t get more predictable, the voice-over narration turns out to be a college admissions essay. Shipka is terrific – she carries the picture with ease – but there’s only so much she can do with a script this pedestrian.
Similarly slender dividends are paid by Susie Searches, starring Kiersey Clemons as a part-time college student and host of a true crime podcast that no one listens to who finally gets a big break when a charismatic classmate is kidnapped, making her uniquely positioned to solve the crime. Clemons is always fun to watch, and director Sophie Kargman has a good, sharp eye and appetite for visual trickery, while William Day Frank’s screenplay has a couple of good twists. But the tone is all over the place; it looks and sounds like a comedy, and the score and several of the performances teeter right into cartoon territory, but there are precious few laughs. The thriller sections are far more successful, suggesting that the whole thing might’ve gone down smoother if it’d been played a dash more seriously.
I didn’t have the chance to see as many documentaries as I’d like, but the ones I saw were choice. The Grab, from Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, unfolds like a good conspiracy thriller should – with its protagonist (in this case, investigative reporter Nate Halverson) poking into the irregularities in one story (the 2013 purchase of the giant Smithfield Food company by the Chinese WH Group) which, in turn, seems to crack a whole other thing wide open. “Are other countries doing this?” he wondered, and indeed they are, pulling at a thread that reveals foreign powers buying up vast food and water supplies, Russia importing American cowboys, the former head of Blackwater engaging in shady farm deals in Africa, and the realization that agriculture is the new oil. “It’s seeding future conflicts,” we’re told. “It’s disabling the world.” Cowperthwaite decodes and connects all this information with both clarity and urgency; it’s both a frightening and enlightening experience.
Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko’s documentary Free Money is an up close examination of what happens with the problem of extreme global poverty is taken on by people who say things like “How do we innovate more and think a little more disruptively to this sector?” That’s the question posed by Michael Faye, a Harvard grad (of course) who cooked up Give Directly, which is trying out UBI and wealth redistribution in a handful of Kenyan villages. DeFilippo and Soko focus on one of them, Koguto, and do so even-handedly; intentions are good but the process is flawed, as the “tough choices” of such an experiment have real human consequences. They tell it as both a finance/tech and human interest story, but leaning more towards the latter, which is the right call – the trouble is that they’re only covering the first four years of a 12-year program, so the film isn’t able to come to much of a conclusion.
But one of the most electrifying films in Toronto was one comprised entirely of existing footage. The David Bowie bio-doc Moonage Daydream is the work of Brett Morgan, one of the few pop culture documentarians who is trying to expand and experiment with the form. By his own admission, Bowie “spent a lot of my life actually looking for myself”; it wasn’t a life that moved in a straight line, so an account of it shouldn’t either. There’s biographical information, sure, and some sense of chronology, but it’s unpacked thematically, in musical and cinematic movements, via scorching concert footage, documentary odds and ends, archival interviews, stock footage, clips from his films, experimental videos, and more. Morgan juxtaposes and manipulates the images in unexpected ways, and does similar magic with the music. It’s a wild journey, and (as an IMAX release) should be seen on the biggest damn screen you can find.