As I wait to hear the winner of TIFF’s coveted People’s Choice Award, an honour that has prepared the victorious film for a Best Picture nomination in eight of the past nine years, I pray it goes to Lady Bird (Grade: A-). That comedy is not just the solo writing and directing debut of actor Greta Gerwig, but one of the most assured high-school movies in years. Saoirse Ronan could receive a third Oscar nomination for her turn as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, an equally lovable and maddening high-school senior on chilly terms with her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and hoping to boost her grades so that she can move away from Sacramento for college. It all hits a snag when father Larry (Tracy Letts) loses his job.
The film, which has been receiving rapturous acclaim since its Telluride premiere, initially seemed under-whelming due to its familiar territory within the teenage coming-of-age genre. But Gerwig is a perceptive scribe, and the fact that she was roughly the same age as the protagonist is within the story’s 2002 setting helps a lot of the period touches feel authentic rather than cute. The film’s narrative goals may be modest, but Lady Bird’s accumulation of senior-year memories (weekend inhibition, mugging for the school musical, going to prom) provides more than just a breadth to the protagonist’s experience, but a depth to her personal development. Those who found Diablo Cody’s script to Juno cloying could have similar complaints about the witty rapport between Christine and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges). Nevertheless, the 93-minute comedy doesn’t waste a moment: it is remarkable how many incidents, situations, and turning points Gerwig can cover with just a minute’s worth of dialogue. The result is rich, moving, and deeply funny, a film you truly miss when it ends.
Lady Bird’s most pleasurable charms come from its specificity of the characters’ teenage ennui. In sharp contrast, making an overly broad attempt to palate festival audiences is Sheikh Jackson (Grade: C), the closing night selection in the Special Presentations programme. The synopsis for Amr Salama’s drama is appealing: a devout imam in Egypt is at a career impasse when the death of Michael Jackson spurs him to revisit his teenage years, when he learned to dance to the King of Pop to please his crush. (Ahmad Alfishawy plays the sheikh, and Ahmed Malek is his teenage counterpart.) The blend of religious obedience with cultural temptation is an appealing idea, but screenwriters Salama and Omar Khaled rely on a cacophony of clichés, from the strict father to the dead mother. Meanwhile, the chapter I was anticipating, which would have explored the protagonist’s climb from cultural to spiritual observance, is oddly absent. Worst of all, the independently budgeted production couldn’t afford any of Jackson’s songs. We’re left with audio cues that sort of resemble his mega-hits of the late 1980s. With the exception of a hallucinatory montage where the protagonist’s everyday life mixes with the music-video iconography of that pop star, the film lacks the sound and the spirit of the figure its protagonist idolizes.
That schism between music and social norms in the Middle East is also inherent to AVA (Grade: B+), the first narrative feature by Iranian-Canadian director Sadaf Foroughi. Set in Tehran, the film focuses on the titular schoolgirl (Mahour Jabbari), a young Muslim who has little interest in adhering to her parents’ expectations. Marriage isn’t on her mind; instead, she wants to pursue music in college. She also has a crush on a young pianist, Nima (Houman Hoursan), a budding friendship to which Ava’s mother (Bahar Noohian) disapproves. When mom takes Ava to a gynecologist, worried that her daughter has been sexually active, the normally talkative schoolgirl quickly silences, and then begins to act out in startling ways. Foroughi is a confident filmmaker who knows exactly where to place the camera to capture the mood of an argument or heated discussion, or to help reflect the protagonist’s circumscribed activity. Unlike in Sheikh Jackson, the worries and concerns of the overbeating parent are recognizable, stemming from cultural and class-based repression. The confrontations here are an apt view of the strain between generations, with authority figures expecting instant obedience and young women curious to challenge the status quo. Its thoughtful characterization and blistering performances make one deeply anticipate Foroughi’s next film.
As for the work of another Canadian director, Mina Shum’s Meditation Park (Grade: C+) is too slight and dramatically inert to stand alongside her superb drama Double Happiness or recent documentary Ninth Floor, both of which premiered in Toronto. The film rests on a leading performance from Cheng Pei Pei that jumps between nuanced and overwrought, sometimes within the same scene. Pei Pei plays Maria, an aging housewife who discovers a woman’s underwear in the suit of her husband (Tzi Ma), and suspects he is having an affair. This is the impetus for Maria to not just figure out her husband’s whereabouts, but to find an inner strength to work and thrive on her own. It’s an admirably original premise, and one that formidably recounts the strain of the immigrant experience in Canada (a motif of Shum’s work). But too few of the peripheral players in Maria’s life ever feel pertinent to the narrative. Sandra Oh stars as Maria’s overworked daughter and Don McKellar portrays a neighbour who befriends the senior citizen, but there is too little on the page to make the mother-daughter relationship and platonic friendship, respectively, resonate. Consequently, one wishes the rest of Shum’s attempt to illuminate the struggle of Asian immigrants and senior citizens could transcend familiar culture-clash tropes.
After hearing some dismal things about one Matt Damon flick at TIFF (the George Clooney-directed Suburbicon), I decided to skip that and check out another Matt Damon vehicle. Unfortunately, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (Grade: C-) begins with an opening third of invention and promise, before curdling into an exasperating, excessively unfunny lull, filled with enormous missed potential. Damon plays Paul Safranek, a character’s whose distinctive surname results in little more than a tired running gag. At the film’s start, Paul and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) become fascinated with a new scientific innovation, where humans can reduce their size and mass volume by around 2,700 times. (The reason given for this radical shrinking is to help reduce overpopulation and curb climate change.) The cash-strapped couple believes a decision to downsize will allow them to live the rest of their lives in a luxury community for exponentially more value.
The first 45 minutes of the two-hour-plus film behave like a TV pilot, briskly filling out the emotional stakes and the appeal of this scientific discovery. (Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, and Jason Sudeikis are among the guest stars in this early section.) However, as soon as Paul has moved into miniature mode, the film sputters and stiffens, as if that small-screen series had fast-forwarded into a future episode from a deeply lacklustre season that couldn’t afford the cast and production qualities of the pilot. The intriguing science and pocket-sized living of this early section is mostly forgotten, and we’re left with an irksome relationship between Damon’s affable (if dull) everyman and a Vietnamese refugee, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Ngoc is one of the most enervating characters to reach the screen this year – and this is not so much Chau’s fault but the caricaturing of Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor – and not a moment of the dynamic between her and Paul is convincing. Beyond that, a confusing timeline, an inadequate explanation for the socioeconomic disparities within the miniature space, and a torpid narrative drive provide TIFF with one of its biggest disappointments.
It is possible that if I had seen Downsizing earlier in the festival, I may have given it a kinder review. However, I saw Payne’s Oscar hopeful a mere 12 hours after Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot (Grade: A), a vital and complex Israeli drama that singlehandedly reinvigorated my festival. The director of 2010’s Lebanon follows that film, which was set almost entirely within a confined tank, with another powerful drama about the lingering effects of war and trauma. Since the entire film relies on surprising plot developments, I will tiptoe around the details of the story. I will share that this film shifts between two settings. The first is the spacious city apartment of Michael and Dafna Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler), after they learn that their son, Jonathan, was killed in the line of duty. The second is a checkpoint by a sparsely travelled road in northern Israel, where four bored Israeli soldiers sit and wait for vehicles (and even a couple of camels) to pass. The connections between these realms will be self-evident for the viewer, but will not be spoiled here. Regardless, Foxtrot does as good a job of any film in recent memory to explore Israel’s systems of militaristic and social control, as well as the connections between life and death, water and fire, sex and violence, comedy and tragedy. It’s explosively good.
Coming soon: Some final reactions, plus my list of the best (and worst) films I saw at this year’s festival.