Our fourth dispatch from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s the first, the second, and the third) continues sifting through the various cinematic voices, styles, and pedigrees that make-up this year’s official slate. This time, we offer our takes on a big historical epic from a mainstay of international cinema (Mike Leigh’s Peterloo), the sophomore feature from a breakout director of the film festival circuit (Laszlo Nemes’s Sunset), prestige Hollywood actor fare (Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carrell in Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, Lucas Hedges in his dad Peter Hedges’s Ben Is Back), an intimate arthouse highlight (Federico Veiroj’s Belmonte), and others.
Based on a pair of memoirs, authored by father and son David and Nic Sheff — which detail the latter’s meth addiction and general self-destructive behavior from differing perspectives — Beautiful Boy is largely presented from only one of its principle characters’ standpoints. Dedicated, docile father David (Steve Carrell) tries to not only help his son, but also understand the interiority of a child no longer familiar to him. This approach proves aptly moving, thanks in part to some relatively low-key emoting, which allows gentle scenes of David’s addiction research and its accompanying anxiety to inform our understanding of his ordeal. It’s frustrating, then, that Nic (Timothée Chalamet) proves to be a more rote incarnation of substance abuse, all mood swings and escalating self-deception; the actor’s work helps, but does not fully overcome an underwritten role. Director Felix Van Groeningen clearly sees Nic as secondary to a narrative of the gyroscopic effects of addiction on a family. Still, his episodic approach is effective: montages of Nic’s recidivist cycles are punctuated with melancholic pop, jazzy interludes, and lilting operatics that reflect the emotional and psychological states of the character. This penchant for explicit articulation can sometimes seem ill-conceived and too didactic (a symbolic car chase, for instance), and the film’s narrative beats scan as fairly standard for an addiction drama, but Beautiful Boy thankfully proves reluctant to rely on the inherent dramatics of its subject matter, and intuitively employs its few aesthetic flourishes.
Peter Hedges’s Ben Is Back, a kind of thematic sibling to Beautiful Boy, follows a teenage opiate addict (Lucas Hedges) returning home for Christmas from his sober living house. Rather than just rotely depicting the superficial identifiers of an addict’s psychology, Hedges’s film creates a fleshed-out character. Unfortunately, it disavows trust in both its subject matter and its characters, and, at around the halfway point, morphs into a rabbit-hole thriller that finds Ben’s devoted mother (Julia Roberts) following her son down the dark alleys and into dank trailer parks. It’s a jarring turn, one that not only undermines the authenticity that Ben Is Back led with, but also mines its addiction narrative for suspense in an abysmally exploitative way. Luke Gorham
Over the course of a brisk 75 minutes, Federico Veiroj’s fourth feature, Belmonte, observes its title character (Gonzalo Delgado), a middle-aged painter of modest renown, negotiate the various facets of his professional and personal life: an upcoming exhibition of his work at Montevideo’s National Museum, his ex-wife’s near-term pregnancy, the attentions of his young daughter Celeste, as well as his latent homosexual proclivities (which emerge mainly in his striking paintings of nude male figures). A different director might play-up this story’s dramatic appeal by fashioning a tragi-comic series of indignities for Belmonte. But Veiroj opts to subtly, firmly resist such impulses, never playing into the expected emotional valence of any given scene and instead choosing to defuse each scenario through an emphasis on compassion and dignity. Such a strategy may seem perverse, or boring even. Fortunately, Veiroj’s formal prowess — in addition to the work of his superb cast — more than compensates. Belmonte’s multi-hued color palette and appealing lighting schemes might recall the work of Serge Bozon — and Veiroj’s film further impresses for its wry sense of humor, its detailed frames, and its unexpected transitions. (A cut from Belmonte’s artist studio to his tear-streaked face at the end of — it’s later revealed — an orchestral performance is just one example of this director’s ability to surprise.) Even if Belmonte ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than a modestly-scaled character study, Veiroj’s unique, intelligent approach to the material is not to be dismissed. Lawrence Garcia
The year’s second major film addressing the particular evil of church-sanctioned gay conversion therapy, Boy Erased (based on a memoir of the same name) was never going to be subtle. But where Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post sought to present a measured, artful rendering of a gay youth’s path to self-acceptance, Joel Edgerton‘s film milks the reality of these therapies for their inherent horror and absurdity. And while rationally this proves impactful and cathartic, there is an overwrought, stacking-the-deck quality to the film’s enmity. Edgerton locates scattered moments of intimacy throughout, which keeps his film from being a full-stop farcical punchline — and his economical use of peripheral characters imbues his narrative with some interesting shades of gray. But there is something far more scathing in allowing ideologues of the kind found here to condemn themselves (in the 2002 doc Hell House, for instance) than through the well-intentioned mixed bag that Edgerton offers. Luke Gorham
It’s nigh-impossible to discuss the new film In My Room, from Berlin School-affiliated writer/director Ulrich Köhler, without revealing that a third of the way in, seemingly all of humanity vanishes overnight, save schlubby protagonist Armin (Hans Löw). Until that jolt, Köhler’s film is a muted, semi-drab character study following thirtysomething Armin as he amiably bumbles through a TV news dayjob and a sloppy personal life lived out of a dingy one-bedroom where he’s crashed for more years than he cares to admit to a repelled one-night stand. Köhler lays on the humdrum abjection thickly — lingering on Armin’s paunchy nude form (even his bicep tat is basic) and showing him brushing his teeth while urinating, and then mirrorlessly flossing in his bedroom. When Armin returns to his childhood home to tend to a dying grandmother, he and his oversharing father (Michael Wittenborn) take turns walking into different rooms to stare off at nothing. Before this studied miserablism can grow unbearable, Armin wakes up in a car, very alone (as in the similarly lugubrious The Leftovers, the “departure” is never explained, though it seems to have something to do with the grandmother). And after Armin’s initial panic (which allows for some virtuosic hood-cam driving footage around the I Am Legend ghostscape), subtle edits push the action forward an indeterminate number of years, revealing a new Armin, one who’s expert at tilling the land, tinkering, and hydroelectricity. Armin’s loneliness is interrupted, though, by a violent meeting with the intimidating Kirsi (Elena Radonicich). It’s a seeming jackpot for both of them — they’re relatively attractive heterosexuals in the same age bracket — but soon their relationship is poisoned by the usual boredom (she glumly watches Bridges of Madison County on a Macbook while shooing away his interruptions) and bickering (she does not want to procreate and he betrays her trust). Even as The Last Man on Earth, Armin can’t get the girl. Throughout, Köhler’s narrative portioning is masterful; banal moments from the first section take on new significance after the apocalypse event, while the film’s final third works as a wryly pessimistic microcosm of modern romance. Justin Stewart
Shot on gorgeous 35mm in the director’s preferred close-up style (ported in from his debut feature, Son of Saul) and employing what appears to be exclusively natural light, Laszlo Nemes‘s visceral second feature, Sunset, deftly recalibrates the gothic tradition in its depiction of an early 20th century European society on the precipice of collapse. Instead of applying this lens to heighten Sunset’s narrative beats, Nemes uses genre-specific tics (a measured approach to doling out information, hushed exchanges, mysterious encounters with eccentrics) to craft a fevered chaos of confusion and unease. In developing his themes, Nemes forgoes visual subtlety in favor of compositional saturation. Light and dark collide, literally and metaphorically; the action largely unfolds in lantern-lit nighttime streets or amidst the carriage-kicked dust of bustling city afternoons. The film’s ostensible heroine, Irisz (Juli Jakab), is all but swallowed by the phantasmagoric swirl of violent, competing forces in which she finds herself caught. Nemes augments this approach by fashioning a reactive character — Jakab is as expressive as she is impenetrable. This treatment of the lead is significant, and the director’s underlying interest in the relationship between individual and society is no more keenly felt than when, in the course of a riotous tracking-shot that portends a ratcheting tension to follow, Irisz is paradoxically warned: “You’re spared. Save yourself.” Luke Gorham
As one of the only Iranian films with traction and visibility on the international festival circuit, Jafar Panahi’s Three Faces has much to prove. The film shouldn’t have to assume this role, but due to the vagaries of programming and distribution, a forced narrative—say, one that sees Panahi’s film as a privileged window into the socio-political turmoil of modern day Iran—is somewhat inevitable. This situation appears to be of some concern to Panahi, especially since his films cannot be legally screened in Iran. Three Faces follows the director and adored actress Behnaz Jafari (both playing themselves) as they go on a road trip to rural Iran to investigate what looks to be a filmed suicide. The incident in question concerns a young woman who had hoped Jafari could convince her family of the value in pursuing an acting career. Jafari’s apparent inability to save the woman prompts the actor-director pair to reconsider their social responsibilities as artists: Who do we make movies for? What is the value of on-screen representation? How do we make movies that transcend cosmopolitan insularity? These are all questions worth asking, but Panahi tends to land on the easiest answers, and mostly allows himself to escape the self-scrutiny seemingly promised by his premise. Thanks to a heavily telegraphed twist, Three Faces turns into hokey self-aggrandizement. A potential indictment of both Panahi and his audience is traded for a simplistic template of an established director boosting the voices of women and the rural populace. That message has merit, but the film built around it merely applauds Panahi for the effort. M.G. Mailloux
Over his 30-plus year career, Mike Leigh has incisively observed human interactions and dissected the various factors (upbringing, education, religion, etc.) that define those relations. So it’s baffling to try and understand the justification behind Peterloo, a three-hour film of people giving long speeches, with nearly no central characters to latch onto. To depict the events leading up to the Peterloo Massacre, Leigh observes the two major, opposing sides of England’s class struggle grow in size over meetings in the respective camps. Unfortunately, there’s little to care about here on an emotional level, since the film prioritizes introducing second-rate historical figures over firmly characterizing any significant personalities on either side. Everyone presented is defined solely by the ideals they convey: the working-class insurgents never move beyond wanting more wages and less work, while the bourgeoisie sit around barking about how much they hate the poor. The ideological dichotomy Leigh introduces is so rigid that within a few seconds of someone speaking, you’ll often know exactly which topics they’ll touch on (sovereignty or liberty if they look a tad unkempt; government control if they don’t), the time it will take them to get through their proclamation (roughly ten minutes), and what the next person in line will say (the same exact thing). This is history as it probably was: largely boring and inefficient, relentless and exhausting. Paul Attard