Film festivals as large as the Toronto event currently underway are too big and sprawling to have some kind of over-arching theme.
They may have sections devoted to films from a single country or a particular director or some other category. But aside from festivals that devote themselves to something specific – social-justice documentaries, let’s say – most of the festivals I’ve been to are massive grab-bags of cinematic variety and Toronto is no exception.
Still, by accident, I managed to put together a theme day on Tuesday: Of the five films I saw, four dealt in one way or another with the loss of a child by a parent. And yet it was one of the more fulfilling days I’ve had in a while.
I saw two of the festival’s big guns – Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” But I also two smaller films that packed their own kind of power: Alex Lehmann’s “Blue Jay” and Katherine Dieckmann’s “Strange Weather.”
“Strange Weather” offers a wiry, weather-beaten Holly Hunter as a divorced Georgia woman hanging on to her job by her fingernails, even as she tries to sort out the rest of her life. Then a chance encounter with a boyhood pal of her son leads her back into the dark shadows of her son’s suicide a few years earlier. Specifically, she comes across facts about the night he killed himself that leads her to track down the friends of his who saw him last.
This picaresque tale features Carrie Coon as Hunter’s best friend, who goes along for the ride when Hunter decides she needs to find one specific friend in New Orleans. Others pop up along the way – including Kim Coates, an underrated actor if there ever was one. But this is really Hunter’s show, playing a canny woman with an itch she can’t possibly scratch – because that kind of pain simply can’t be explained away.
It’s a sometimes sharply written film that occasionally goes astray, then finds its way back. It rises and falls on the performance of Hunter, whose character may remind some of Grace Hanadarko from her TV series, “Saving Grace.” She’s tough, but with raw wounds that still haven’t healed and Hunter makes you relish even the occasionally overwritten scenes (though there aren’t that many).
I also liked “Blue Jay,” written by Mark Duplass and starring Duplass and Sarah Paulson. It’s a two-hander about a pair of former high-school sweethearts, Duplass and Paulson, who run into each other one day in their old hometown. Conversation leads to coffee, which leads to an evening of reminiscing at the home of Duplass’ late mother.
In many ways, this film resembles “Before Sunrise” and its sequels. Essentially, it’s roughly 90 minutes of a man and a woman talking: arguing, flirting, telling stories and, in every way, connecting. Inevitably, secrets are bared and the story of their past and why they eventually split comes out.
The secret isn’t earth-shattering; it’s simply human, as is this whole story. Paulson practically gives off sparks as a woman whose defenses are up, but whose regrets work to neutralize them. Duplass is good at conveying the barely suppressed neediness that his character fights to control. It’s sad and funny, a smart, succinct and moving film.
“Manchester by the Sea” has been building buzz since it exploded out of Sundance in January. The third film by Kenneth Lonergan, it has been touted at this year’s must-see tear-jerker: “a five hanky film,” as my companion in line for the film described it.
And it definitely delivers, yet with a restraint that makes the anguish beneath the surface that much more poignant. Indeed, it is a film built around a character who has spent years trying to block out all the emotions that this film arouses.
His name is Lee Chandler and, as played by the redoubtable Casey Affleck, he’s among the most interior and uncommunicative characters in recent screen memory. Yet Affleck is a strong enough actor to convey the inner turmoil that tears at this man, who lives a solitary life as a janitor in Boston, doing fix-it work around a set of apartment buildings.
But he’s forced to return to Manchester, his hometown, when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) drops dead of a heart attack. Their parents are dead and Joe’s wife is long gone, an alcoholic who has disappeared from his life – and so Lee is named guardian for his nephew, Patrick (newcomer Lucas Hedges), even as he must make the arrangements for Joe’s funeral.
We watch Lee adjust to this new set of responsibilities – while we see flashbacks to his earlier life and how he came to his current circumstances. Gradually, the realization hits that he will probably have to stay in Manchester to take care of the 16-year-old Patrick. But his hometown is full of ghosts of its own, including a tragedy that Lee fled and hoped never to revisit. Suddenly, reminders are all around him, and there’s little he can do about it except suffer through the memories that are being stirred up.
Given the subject matter, Lonergan’s film is deftly funny at times, even as it sucker-punches you with moments of intense emotion. At its heart is Affleck, a most melancholy-looking actor, who brings new levels of inventiveness to moments when his character says nothing. And yet everything is right there on his face. “Manchester by the Sea” is a stunner, the kind of film about intense human emotion that too seldom gets made.
I have a hunch that, critics aside, “Arrival” is a film that may leave viewers puzzled. But, while the film can be cryptic, all of the answers to its mysteries are contained within, if you just pay enough attention.
Amy Adams plays a linguist named Louise, who is drafted by the government, along with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), to be part of the U.S. team when aliens land on our planet. A dozen crafts have touched down around the globe; international scientific teams at each site are working to communicate with the ships – and Louise, it is hoped, will be able to translate the language of the aliens so we can communicate with them.
But the Chinese and the Russians are antsier about this process, convinced that the aliens mean to attack us, and so they break off cooperation with other countries to prepare an attack on the alien ship.
Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) is a director with a gift for bringing the other-worldly to life in ways that are both inventive and believable. Still, Eric Heisserer’s script makes several leaps in story and logic that feel far-fetched, even given the willing suspension of disbelief required for the film as a whole.
The global politics seem a trifle simplistic, or perhaps are simply applied with too broad a brush. Still, the emotional wallop this film packs is considerable, as are the simple thrills of visionary movie-making that Villeneuve brings to the scenes in which Louise makes contact with the aliens (known as heptapods). It’s the kind of movie you’ll think about long and hard afterward, both to figure out what you just saw and to process the message it offers about our own human folly.
Finally, I saw one film that did not deal with the death of one’s child: “Their Finest,” a mildly comic tale of propaganda film-making by the British at the start of World War II. Gemma Arterton plays a former secretary who, because all of the men have been drafted, gets a shot at actual writing: first for propaganda shorts, then for a feature film meant to raise British morale at home.
It’s a charmingly familiar film, about the plucky British carrying on and remaining calm in the face of constant Nazi bombardment. The behind-the-scenes tale of show-biz during wartime – when make-believe seems that much less serious – calls to mind films like “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and “Hope and Glory.”
It features a strong cast, including Arterton, Sam Claflin and Danny Huston, as well as the ever-invaluable Bill Nighy. It won’t set the world on fire, but there will be much worse ways of spending two hours before the week is out, I can assure you.
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