Given the current sociopolitical climate and general state of the world, satire seems like a tall order. How can you comically exaggerate people and situations when everything that happens already feels like it’s already been exaggerated for comedic effect? But for that very reason, satire can also find success during difficult times — it is, after all, a way to use humor to shine light on social, political, and cultural issues. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival had quite a few films that fall into that category.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (release TBA) approaches social and class-related satire with a genteel, light style, as befits the story’s original creator, Charles Dickens. His work has a long tradition of building up a cast of wild eccentrics surrounding the “normal” main character, with the juxtaposition serving to highlight their inherent absurdities. David Copperfield (played with charm and good humor by leading-man-in-the-making Dev Patel) fights to come of age in a world where he is constantly wrong-footed — just as he begins to climb his way back to stable ground, he’s thrust back into the uncertainty of poverty.
The characters of means within the film are a bright and entertaining collection of oddities. David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) is abrasive and fiercely set in her ways, though ultimately generous and kind-hearted, and is forever obsessed with chasing donkeys off her property. Her cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) is essentially a shut-in, convinced that he has a mental and spiritual connection with the late Charles I, and is forced to spend his days laboriously writing down the deposed king’s thoughts just to get them out of his head. And their solicitor Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) is well-intentioned but befuddled as a side effect of his constant drunkenness.
In the hands of Armando Iannucci, showrunner of Veep and director of The Death of Stalin, whom many regard as a master satirist, the adaptation is surprisingly gentle, even hopeful. He reserves the full force of his comedic assault for those who are intentionally cruel or conniving (David’s stepfather, for example, or the obsequious yet social-climbing Mr. Heep, played with creeping servility by a scene-stealing Ben Whishaw). Although The Personal History of David Copperfield employs sentimentality to a degree that many viewers might be surprised to learn Iannucci is capable of, it nonetheless succeeds in using character-based humor as a means of exploring class, poverty, and social status.
How to Build a Girl (release TBA) is based on the memoirs of a former teen journalist on the London music scene in the 1990s, but it also skewers the coming-of-age genre with a knowing wink to the audience. Johanna (a bubbly Beanie Feldstein in her breakout leading performance) is an avid devourer of literature, and as such is all too aware of how a heroine’s journey traditionally unfolds. She bemoans the fact that there are few opportunities for adventure and romance in her sleepy town of Wolverhampton. The film utilizes her understanding of the genre to subvert expectations of what a story like this, of a teen girl growing up and discovering her identity, is supposed to look like.
As Johanna somehow falls into a gig as a freelance rock critic, How to Build a Girl dramatically shifts gears to satirize the music industry and arts journalism in general. Her painstakingly invented alter ego Dolly Wilde is an amalgam of everything that people hate about professional critics. Her career revolves around landing pointlessly cruel one-liners and getting a rise out of her targets fare more than it does actually engaging with music.
The nastier she gets, the further her star rises at her magazine, whose writers see themselves as the gatekeepers of musical taste. They are all essentially identical: all privileged, over-educated men that come from money and care more about dictating trends than they do about finding actual joy in music.
How to Build a Girl walks a tightrope between sentimental feminist teen drama and a surprisingly strong indictment of what it perceives to be a lack of integrity in journalism. It doesn’t always find a perfect equilibrium between the two, but the undeniable enthusiasm from the main cast (especially Feldstein) carries it over the finish line.
Jojo Rabbit (in theaters Oct. 18) is a film that seems destined to divide audiences, and a huge part of that is because with this type of satire, people aren’t sure exactly they’re allowed to laugh at. The idea of a comedy about Nazis feels wrong somehow. Forbidden. But the important distinguishing factor is whether we’re laughing with someone or at them. It should go without saying that in Jojo Rabbit, we’re definitely laughing at the Nazis. Taika Waititi skillfully obliterates their entire ideology by making it utterly ridiculous.
As the end of the war approaches, it becomes increasingly difficult for the Nazi officers in the film to ignore their country crumbling around them. Still, they remain steadfast to the movement, from the former commander who botched a military operation so badly that he was demoted all the way down to babysitting the Hitler Youth, to the group of SS officers who waste a full five minutes upon meeting new people in saluting to one another and are tickled pink by a child’s “scientific” study of the Jews, to an imaginary Hitler who is as wildly insecure as the real one must have been.
The real strength of Taika Waititi’s satire is not that he makes the Nazis look like bumbling fools, but that they’re presented as both deeply moronic and incredibly dangerous, and the two traits are linked. Their hatred is utterly absurd, but Waititi never minimizes the threat it nonetheless poses. There’s a richness in tone to Jojo Rabbit, as it shifts effortlessly from silly physical comedy to expertly delivered one-liners to more somber, surprisingly poignant moments. Jojo’s belief system crumbling after the experience of meeting one single Jew is the final pot shot aimed at Nazi ideology: if a ten-year-old boy who can’t even tie his own shoes can see that the rhetoric and propaganda are wrong, what does that say about everyone else?
Bad Education (release TBA) is, at its heart, an exposé. It brings to light the story of a superintendent who was willing to risk everything and embezzle taxpayer funds to get his district to the number one position in the school rankings, the school board that assisted in covering up the illegal actions, and the community that implicitly condoned his behavior by putting such pressure on him to get to number one.
Wealthy suburbanites wanted their Long Island school district to be the best not because it would mean that their children were getting an unparalleled education, but because their houses would increase in value and so would their social status. In showing this unrestrained greed and the well-intentioned but unethical actions of the man supporting it, director Cory Finley satirizes an entire culture. A group for whom the rules don’t seem to apply, actions are acceptable insofar as they help attain wealth and don’t draw too much attention to themselves, and money and prestige are the driving forces behind everything.
At its head is Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), who is so secure in his own privilege that it seemingly never occurs to him that someone might eventually check into why a public school superintendent is spending $40000 of taxpayer money on first class flights to Europe. Honestly, it’s as though somewhere along the line he’s managed to convince himself that he hasn’t done anything wrong.
When the story’s about to get out, he begs the board to bury it until after the next budget vote — his primary concern is still trying to get additional funds for the district under false pretenses, in pursuit of that elusive number one spot in the school rankings. And after the recent college admissions scandal in which certain wealthy parents broadcasted their privilege, sense of entitlement, and ability to act without fear of serious consequences, it’s a satire that feels particularly resonant.