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  • Carson Cook

The TIFF 2023 Dispatch

Courtesy of TIFF

Going into the 2023 edition of the Toronto International Film festival, I wondered whether the energy might be off: the ongoing strikes by the actors’ and writers’ guilds — holding strong in their fight for equity — had created a potential pall over the fall festival circuit as most major stars, even those whose films had brokered agreements with the guilds, eschewed public promotional appearances in the name of solidarity. But while the red carpets were noticeably less star-studded, to my relatively untrained eye, audience excitement for seeing new films remained high; from enthusiastic pre-roll applause to standing ovations for a filmmaker in attendance, the crowd maintained their enthusiasm from day one to day five when I took my leave.

As for the films themselves: the TIFF lineup achieved impressive diversity of genre and filmmaking origin, taking risks in a manner that — as is typical with a festival of this size — resulted in a wide range of quality. Elsewhere on the site I’ll speak at more length on some of the biggest draws (including two immediately major works, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron and Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest), but I’ll use this space to touch on some of the less heralded titles, for good or for ill.

Let’s start with one of the more interesting trends: whether a byproduct of the strikes or merely a coincidence, the TIFF 2023 lineup was packed with films by well-known actors moving behind the camera. My schedule didn’t accommodate all the works by the likes of Patricia Arquette, Michael Keaton, Viggo Mortensen, and Chris Pine, but I did catch North Star, the directorial debut of Kristin Scott Thomas. Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, and Emily Beecham as sisters returning to their childhood home for their mother’s (Scott Thomas) third wedding, the film reads as an undeniably personal story for the writer-director — ultimately to its detriment. Working from a shaky script that feels both overstuffed and undercooked, Scott Thomas’ control of a vacillating tone does her cast little favors, such that by the end the emotional payoffs are more frustrating than cathartic.

Similar on its face is surprise festival darling His Three Daughters, the latest from writer-director Azazel Jacobs, a film which also revolves around the return of three sisters to their childhood home, though under vastly different circumstances: the impending passing of their ill father. Rampant buzz around the premiere had me excited, but five minutes into my screening I found that Jacobs’ specific style of vastly overwritten dialogue — the element that kept me from fully falling for The Lovers or French Exit — was as present as ever. Eventually, the piece mostly won me over, particularly due to a strong conclusion that has risen in my estimation since my initial viewing. A more cohesive piece than North Star, but still feels like a case of strong performers (in this case, Carrie Coon, Natasha Lyonne, and Elizabeth Olsen) being shackled by underwhelming material. In the end, I can’t say the film isn’t effective in stretches (and supporting players Jovan Adepo and Jay O. Sanders fare better due to the limits of their appearances), but tolerance for a style that feels more suited to the stage will be the deciding factor for many viewers.

Tolerance may be in short supply for Shoshana and Death of a Whistleblower, two films which provide contrasting examples of how an effective political thriller requires more than just a good idea. Michael Winterbottom’s Shoshana is a period piece focusing on the era of Mandatory Palestine, during which the British Empire, in colonial fashion, attempted to control the region and handle the rising animosity between the Jewish and Arab peoples. The concept here is perfectly solid — an interesting historical era, filtered through a relationship between a British police officer and a Jewish journalist — but the execution is shockingly dull. Despite several shoot-outs and a semi-regular smattering of terrorist bombings, the film feels interminable; leads Douglas Booth and Irina Starshenbaum have barely any characterization and even less chemistry, and Winterbottom and company seem so intent on weaving a complex geo-political narrative that no one thought to double-check for coherence. Only Harry Melling, as a smarmy and ruthless police commander, manages to bring some much-needed juice to a lethargic effort.

For about five minutes, Death of a Whistleblower gets your hopes up, but after two intriguingly tense scenes to open the movie, you have to settle in for over two hours that steadily trend down. Unlike Shoshana, the problem here isn’t a lack of excitement, it’s that the entire production feels decidedly amateurish. The biggest culprit is a screenplay, credited to four writers, that features a wildly convoluted conspiracy, strange tonal discrepancies, and dialogue that hits the ear with a jarring clang far too often. Despite yet another intriguing premise in a typically high-floor genre — journalist investigates government cover-up and gets in too deep — director Ian Gabriel flounders, unable to coax even a passable thriller from the aforementioned script and a cadre of actors who fail to hold the screen or the audience’s attention in any meaningful way.

I promise that the festival was more good than bad, but let’s get one last misfire out of the way, Edoardo Gabbriellini’s Holiday. I had high hopes here for a film about a young woman’s attempt to rebuild her life after a high-profile trial in which she was accused of murdering her mother, but despite an admirable effort from star Margherita Corradi (subject of some frequent and questionably objectification by the camera here), Holiday will go down as yet another borderline incoherent picture. Utilizing a too-smart-for-its-own-good flashback structure that mistakes confusion for intrigue and leaves us completely unmoored from any sense of sequencing, the film spins its wheels for essentially the entire runtime, eventually ending on an ambiguously unsatisfying note that will have many throwing their hands up in exasperation.

But let’s return to positivity! Lee Tamahori’s The Convert may seem familiar at first glance, clearly part of a lineage that includes Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai, among others. Guy Pearce stars as Thomas Munro, who travels to New Zealand in the 1800s to serve as the preacher for a small British colonial settlement. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before he encounters the local Māori and finds himself in the middle of a conflict between both tribes and British interlopers. Though the film is held back somewhat — like Wolves and Samurai before it — from the foregrounding of the white outsider, Pearce plays the part with stoic grace, and breakout Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne shines as his frequent scene partner. Cinematographer Gin Loane shoots the film handsomely, capturing beauty and danger in equal measure, and in Tamahori’s hands the end result is a more elegiac piece than might be expected; more time to flesh out the themes might have been justified, but as it stands The Convert mournfully ruminates on both the price and the necessity of violence in the name of peace.

Peace — in less literal terms — is in short supply in Ilker Çatak’s The Teacher’s Lounge, Germany’s upcoming Oscars submission. Paced like a thriller, the film follows idealistic young teacher Carla (an excellent Leonie Benesch) as she becomes embroiled in the investigation of a series of (minor) thefts at the junior high she teaches at. Relationships are quickly frayed, students and staff are at each other’s throats, and the small hostilities that can tear a community apart are on full display. Sharply written and shot with effectively claustrophobic style, the film heightens reality just enough to keep us fully on board, and Benesch adeptly anchors the narrative, capturing a recognizable progression from righteously indignant to in over her head.

Jumping from the German education system to the Canadian one, Fitting In finds writer-director Molly McGlynn putting an intriguing spin on the sick kid trope: Maddie Ziegler’s Lindy isn’t dying, but due to a rare medical condition, her ability to have sex is called into question. Too cute by half at times (are we far enough away from the excellent Jennifer’s Body to start with a quote from it?), but mostly charming, with a good balance of comedy and weepiness. McGlynn has a strong handle on teenage fear and desire, and Ziegler handles the lead role assuredly enough, though the standout is Djouliet Amara in the supportive best friend role, running laps around the rest of the cast when it comes to pure charisma. On the other end of the spectrum, the character of Lindy’s mother is near-disastrous as written and performed — a false note that feels pulled out of a bizarro version of this type of movie. Fortunately the surrounding tissue is enough to keep the endeavor at a passing grade.

Fellow Canadian production Seagrass, from writer-director Meredith Hama-Brown, is one of the festival’s more impressive feature debuts. Set at a coastal retreat devoted to couples therapy, Hama-Brown depicts a multi-racial family struggling not to come apart at the scenes: parents Judith (Ally Maki) and Steve (Luke Roberts) are working to save their marriage, while their children Stephanie (Nyha Breitkreuz) and Emmy (Remy Marthaller) are working to fit in. Tinged with a supernatural air that contributes to a palpably unsettling atmosphere, Seagrass patiently moves between indoor and outdoor spaces, contrasting pre-teen discomfort with grown-up angst. Shot with gauzy chill by Norm Li, Hama-Brown’s film shows off strength of vision and facility with performers; even though the ending doesn’t quite achieve the thematic cohesion it’s looking for, the work as a whole remains a strong calling card.

Though my nonfiction exposure at this year’s festival was limited, I’d be surprised if I saw a more crowd-pleasing documentary than Copa 71. Directed by Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine, the film recounts the unofficial Women’s World Cup of 1971, a widely attended tournament held in Mexico City and mostly scrubbed from the annals of history by FIFA. Though familiar in form, Copa 71 wins out on the strength of its material: a combination of the players who participated in the tournament providing an oral history and a wealth of archival footage from the matches themselves. Though the sports documentary risks being oversaturated as a genre at this particular moment, the film nonetheless taps into the thrills of the event itself while simultaneously layering in the sexism and bigotry that kept (and keeps) the world from fully appreciating such events on their own terms.

As usual, the festival spanned the gamut in both style and quality, and I should note that despite my lukewarm (or worse) response to many of these films, in many ways that sort of discovery — good and bad — is what lends film festivals their particular brand of charm and energy. The one thing I can recommend to you unabashedly is to — if you’re a lover of film — try and experience a festival at least once if you can. Small or large, local or international, virtual or in-person, there are far worse ways to spend a weekend than mainlining movies amidst your likeminded peers.


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