Toronto 2021 Wrap-Up
Laudable for its ambitions, Violet stumbles in execution as it tries to navigate themes of mental health and sexism in the entertainment industry. Writer-director Justine Bateman’s debut stars Olivia Munn as a film executive whose inner monologue (voiced by Justin Theroux) dominates her every waking moment — and by extension the audience’s, as Bateman’s visual experimentation includes scrawling these insidious thoughts on the screen itself. Though Munn is quite good, bringing a spark of authenticity to the proceedings, she’s let down by a script that’s thuddingly literal. Filled with on-the-nose dialogue and barely-disguised exposition of the “don’t you remember…” variety, you wind up completely taken out of an environment that seeks to be stylistically immersive.
We’ve seen movies like The Wheel before: a low-budget, talky, tragicomic four-hander that takes aim at the fragility and strength of relationships. But director Steve Pink (of Hot Tub Time Machine fame, also the co-writer of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity) and writer Trent Atkinson mostly avoid the implausible melodramatics that can sink these sorts of films, and in the process manage to excavate some real emotional truths. At times a bit contrived — a pair of 24-year-olds spends a weekend at an Airbnb to try and repair their marriage, undermining the relationship of their soon-to-be-married hosts in the process — impressively nuanced performances by Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray in particular help the film transcend some inherent limitations.
I knew very little about Siegfried Sassoon going into Benediction, but writer-director Terence Davies ensures you’ll leave his beautiful and moving film with a sense of deep understanding of the English poet’s life — without feeling like you’ve just sat through a by-the-numbers history lesson. As we follow the lead subject through the years, Davies deftly weaves Sassoon’s poetry through the film, letting the lines add color to moments and memories without ever needing to be in the forefront, expanding the emotional palette to an impressive degree. It’s a gentle yet heartwrenching film, buoyed by a wonderful and intimate central performance by Jack Lowden, and features one of the most powerful endings of the year so far: one only hopes it will find the audience it deserves.
Mothering Sunday could make for a good post-WWI double feature with Benediction, with its similar themes of love and loss and lives worth leading — though not quite as polished as its counterpart, Eva Husson’s film leaves a marked impression in its own right. Odessa Young stars as a maid having an affair with a higher-status neighbor (Josh O’Connor), and her nuanced emotional accessibility as an audience surrogate allows us a look into a world filled with unprecedented loss. Can there be normalcy moving forward? In Husson’s hands, that’s a question without an easy answer and the film is all the better for it. Based on Graham Swift’s novella of the same name, the non-linear structure does lead to some narrative wheel-spinning (and the closing scene feels very out of place), but ultimately the look and feel (the score by Morgan Kibby is particularly good) are transporting.
If you want a fun, stylish, genre-bending breakout, then look no further — Saloum has you covered. Jean Luc Herbulot’s Senegal-set thriller hits the ground running and doesn’t look back, throwing the audience into the thick of it with a group of mercenaries who escape a coup and find refuge in a seemingly serene locale that of course has more to it than meets the eye. It’s one of those films that manages to both feel like it’s being held together by scotch tape and also firing on all cylinders: crisp editing, a great score, creative visual effects, and a gleefully twisty narrative make Saloum a crowd-pleaser of the highest degree and Herbulot a director to watch.
The Before Sunrise comparisons will come for Compartment No. 6, but aren’t truly apt for this funny and charming, yet melancholy, film about unexpected friendships. Lived-in performances draw you in and break your heart. In Aloners, director Hong Sung-eun drives home how easy it is to be lonely in a world where we’re more connected than ever, with star Gong Seung-yeon giving a nuanced portrayal of how there’s often more to a seemingly disaffected young adult than meets the eye. As a coming-of-age tale with a distinctly ominous bent, Murina is an incredibly confident debut by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović. An excellent centerpiece performance by Gracija Filipovic, and it’s always a delight to see the great Cliff Curtis show up. Beautifully shot, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds may be slow-paced but for the most part simmers with urgency. An important story defined by strong character work from Achouackh Abakar Souleymane in particular. Finally, while we may never see the uncompromised version of Zhang Yimou’s One Second, there’s still plenty to admire in his fascinatingly ambivalent version of the “power of cinema” film.