TIFF 16: A Final Touch of the Old Magic

By: Daniel Reynolds

As always, the Toronto International Film Festival ends abruptly. One minute you’re racing from one theatre to the next, trying to squeeze in as many screenings as you can, and the next moment, just like that… it’s over.

Before we collectively hibernate for the next 365 days (or something), let’s sit back and reflect on our time at TIFF. I’ll start: here are five more reviews of films I saw over the festival’s final three days.

And, as always, a top three from 2016. Read on.

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Barakah Meets Barakah

It’s not often one gets to say this but here goes: Barakah Meets Barakah, directed by first timer Mahmoud Sabbagh, is an adorable romantic comedy from Saudi Arabia. This is a remarkable feat given the country has no film industry infrastructure, and even less interest in visualizing the myriad ways in which dating is difficult in its current cultural climate. Forget meddlesome parents, there are religious police patrolling the streets. So OK, on second thought, one never gets to say that.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, as is the case) Barakah and Bibi (née Barakah) know all of that. The latter, played by Fatima Al Banawi, is an Instagram star who’s made a name for herself online without showing her face. The former, played by Hisham Fageeh, works for the municipality as an enforcement officer — it’s his job to make sure people’s permits are in order. On the job, he meets Bibi at a photoshoot and is immediately smitten. Much to his surprise (and ours, to be honest), Bibi responds in kind and the two try to initiate, well, something. Due to restrictions, the two can barely been seen in public let alone actually touch each other. What evolves from there is a series of comedic misunderstandings, the trials of young love run through the ringer of a society that appears only to want to crush it. The fearsome power of this is so strong the film itself just barely registers any truly romantic moments or images (I counted one), but that’s not to say I was not rooting for the couple — or enjoying the comedy of the situation. (Particularly from Barakah’s uncle Da’ash, who’s got some kind of presence, let me tell you.) To his credit, Sabbagh’s light touch, aided by his charming actors, allows for the numerous strands of his narrative — which includes a place for two mother figures and an enthusiastic theatre director — and his ideas to advance smoothly to their conclusion. He finds a way to contrast his on-the-ground story with Beginners-like montages wherein we see glimpses of a past, more open, Saudi culture. Here’s where the film works best, lamenting things lost even as the new generation pushes out and away from the old. There were no Instagram stars 50 years ago, but you could perhaps hold each other’s hand. That Sabbagh can say all that without tilting into a polemic should earn him a second date, at least.

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Certain Women

In many films, there’s a Hero, and then the Hero’s Wife. You can tell she’s the wife because she’s often found clutching a phone, tears in her eyes, telling her man to come home. It happens a lot. But now, a twist: in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, the Wife is the story; in fact, she’s the Hero. The film is not concerned primarily with being a wife, but it is focused on presenting the usual presumed cinematic margins as main text. It’s a rather large distinction for such a small film.

Using the word small in this sense is not meant to diminish. Working from short stories by Maile Meloy, Reichardt’s eye is both expansive — the vast natural landscape is always present — and intimate. Her film centres on the lives of a handful of women, in a triptych of loosely connected stories, which set out to illuminate a specific condition. The first finds Laura (a radiantly ruffled Laura Dern) in a mid-afternoon tryst with Ryan (James Le Gros) before she returns to her day job as a lawyer with a troublesome client named Fuller (a downhome Jared Harris). The second concerns Gina (mainstay Michelle Williams) as she balances her ambitions with her role as wife to Ryan and mother to Guthrie (Sara Rodier). And finally, in the film’s most far-flung piece, we meet Jamie (Lily Gladstone) as she takes a step or two out of her lonely farm life into a classroom led by nervous law teacher Beth (the imminently watchable Kristen Stewart). As far as conflicts go, these are all fairly minor — even a hostage situation in the first story is laughably tame. What unites these women instead is a similar underlying frustration; that hero/wife dynamic keeps getting in the way of their lives. Or, more pointedly: they’re just not being heard. Laura can’t get her client to heed her advice, Gina has to contend with her husband’s accidental undermining (and a cranky old man played by Rene Auberjonois), and poor Jamie, enamoured with Beth, is barely noticed as the latter continues her own hardscrabble climb up in a man’s world. How Reichardt portrays these small stories — there’s that word again — begins to feel massive, like we’re just scratching the surface of feelings often left totally unexplored in film. The unexamined emotional labour these women must perform to keep everyone’s lives afloat here has a cost. Certain Women exists then as a valuable, rectifying acknowledgement.

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Moonlight

It’s hard not to think politically with Barry Jenkins’ vital new film Moonlight. In abstract, it’s the dreamy coming-of-age story of one boy’s journey into manhood. No overt politics there. But he lives in America, which provides one level of context for his experience. He is black, which provides another. And he is gay — though he hasn’t quite grasped that fact at the story’s outset. Nothing political actually needs to be said, but the film’s mere existence forces us, moves us, to examine what all three of those things mean for this boy, and for his life.

The boy’s name is Chiron, played in three parts by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. He goes by different names — sometimes Little, sometimes Black — but he remains Chiron. The question is: who is that? As a child, it means being the runt. Chiron’s mother Paula (a harried Naomie Harris) is a drug addict; his life is small and scared. A chance encounter with a father-figure drug dealer named Juan (a powerfully understated Mahershala Ali) lights a path for him — Chiron just has to take the steps. From there we jump to high school, that brutal time, and watch as Chiron navigates those halls along with his friend Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland). There’s something unspoken between them (most everything with Chiron is unspoken) but we note the vibe. Finally, we end up with the fully grown young man, now further along on his life’s journey, but with no clearer idea as to what he’s doing or who he is. In between all of that, aided by some breathtaking music choices, Jenkins swims us through beautiful visions of Miami in the day and night using camerawork that captures the inner-workings of its characters. The beats of this film never feel false. (Though some, like the subplot with Paula, could be accused of being a bit familiar and pat.) It’s a challenge to give voice to a marginalized figure — a minority of a minority — and even more so when the character himself is not much of a talker. To build a film around Chiron is bold; who is this for? what’s the market for it? That it took Jenkins eight years to finish this masterpiece tells us something. That it comes now in an American election year, the ugliest, most divisive one we’ve ever seen, is fitting. In its understated way Moonlight says: here, look at this, and listen to what this boy-become-man has to say.

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The Commune

What happens when a mid-life crisis runs into some political upheaval? In Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune, there’s an attempt at an answer, even if it somehow manages to trivialize both. His story of a group of friends living together under one large roof wants to document the push-and-pull of this new age democracy in action — of the personal vs. the group. It’s a noble goal. But the film’s moral ends up being something different: be careful what you wish for.

After inheriting his old family house, architect and professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) is urged by his newscaster wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) not to sell. Owing to her encroaching boredom, she suggests they open the house to old friends and a new communal way of living. It’s the 70s after all. So, in playful montage, in come a bunch of their pals — thinly sketched to a man — to develop a democratic system of rules under one roof. What could go wrong? Before you can say “this is a bad idea,” Erik — in the throes of his own mid-life crisis — stumbles into a relationship with Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), one of his students and puts the entire open and accepting idea to the test. Stop me if you’ve seen this before. For his part, Vinterburg knows how to lens a film; he and his crew create an effortless production here, with period detail intact and a setting (that house) with room enough for everyone and everything. Though his film finds some surprising ways to animate this typical mid-life crisis narrative, there’s nothing in his decorous frame that particularly shocks. (A subplot involving Erik and Anna’s daughter is particularly tedious.) As the film shifts perspectives to Anna — who’s got a few more dimensions to her than Erik’s typical lion in winter — Dyrholm labours to imbue the older woman’s gradual slide from grace. Sure, the film arrives at some semblance of peace (a peace that comes after the death of a 6-year-old boy; don’t ask), but something about all of this didn’t sit right with me. The commune idea holds together onscreen for the film’s duration, but the mother of the idea is punished for it while her semi-jerk husband — known for his fainting spells when getting irate — accrues everything he wants. Is this supposed to be liberated thinking?

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Hello Destroyer

There’s a scene in Hello Destroyer, the debut feature from Canadian director Kevan Funk, in which the protagonist, a young plugger named Tyson Burr, tries to address some unnamed anxiety at the core of his being. As a hockey player for the Prince George Warriors, Tyson is constantly being told what to do, how to fit in, and, by extension, what to feel. Giving himself over to the team as a rookie enforcer works to keep this inner darkness at bay, until a body check he delivers in an instant uproots his sense of self, calling into question some of the national myths we hold so dear. His teammate in the conversation at the time doesn’t understand.

As debut films go, Hello Destroyer is a whopper braced by a deceptively simple story. After the aforementioned “dirty” hit puts an opponent in the hospital, Tyson is suspended from his team and unsure of how to be. He’s reminded again and again about the importance of home, of protecting his team’s “house,” but is quickly cast aside by all when he does not appear to properly fulfil his end of the contract and the classic code of masculinity (play hard, be aggressive, show no weakness). As brought to life by Jared Abrahamson, it’s clear Tyson is both sensitive and troubled. His pained looks and croaking voice reveal his inability to articulate this stress. No one has given him the tools to do so. (Even a later friendship with a co-worker played by the charismatic Joe Buffalo can only partly break through the ice.) Funk uses various methods of scene-setting — claustrophobic hand-held close-ups, long scenes driven by ambient sound, tricks of light and focus — to develop the mind state of Tyson. In effect, this is a hockey movie in the same way that Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! is about baseball. But while that movie functions as a beginning, here we march towards something of an end. Funk is able to carefully spin this specific story into a broader comment on Canada and its hockey legacy in a way that is honest, painful and searching. That Tyson ends up working at a slaughterhouse is, perhaps, an on-the-nose metaphor — discarded player as interchangeable piece of meat — but it does not lessen the power of its imagery. The oblivion promised there begins to offer Tyson the idea of respite; and the film’s title suddenly works as both a greeting and a welcome.

TIFF 2016 Top 3:

  1. Toni Erdmann
  2. Moonlight
  3. Hello Destroyer
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