The Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 7 to 17. Here’s what we saw on day three:
One of the easiest ways to measure the intangible pull of awards buzz at TIFF is to look at what movies press gets shut out of. Last year, I was refused from overbooked screenings of both Moonlight and Loving; though I eventually ended up seeing additional screenings later in the festival, the sheer amount of press wanting to see these movies (at least one of which had already screened in a different festival) is a pretty good gauge that positive word of mouth is going around.
On my second day of TIFF, I tried very hard to get into screenings of both Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and had absolutely no success in either case. I ended up seeing both of them the next day through some stroke of luck (a screening of The Florida Project was added day-of), but if I were a betting man I would put a couple of bucks down on those two come award season. (It helps that they are both terrific — the two best movies I’ve seen here thus far.)
All filmmakers have a moment where they fly too close to the sun; all filmmakers have a moment where their sterling track record allows them to fully faceplant in an extremely public way. For Alexander Payne, Downsizing is that moment. Moving away from his usual character-centric dramedies into something significantly more ambitious, Payne attempts to make an epic sci-fi satire about almost everything (but mostly human nature) and winds up with a careening, out-of-control trainwreck… with some interesting elements.
In the near future, scientists have found a way to shrink the human body to less than one per cent of its original size. The resulting community of “small people” consume way less than regular humans since all their waste is so tiny, and the tiny size of everything from clothes to food to houses turns most middle-class nest eggs into fortunes. That’s what Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to do — except that Audrey changes her mind at the last second, sending Paul alone into the irreversibly tiny world. There, he meets a one-legged Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau) and an unctuous Eastern European playboy (Christoph Waltz) and… uh…
It’s complicated. Downsizing ends up so far from where it originally started that it’s difficult to categorize and even more difficult to parse comfortably — it’s an elaborate humanist fable that’s also kind of a slapstick comedy and a wistful exploration of the end of the world that’s saddled with a Vietnamese character spouting aphorisms in caricatural broken English, silly scale-based sight gags and a general sense that it may keep on going forever and ever. From a clever if far-fetched satire about consumerism and the cookie-cutter nature of the American Dream, Payne keeps elaborating and elaborating until it becomes completely unclear — to me, anyway — what the movie is even about anymore. It’s not even that Payne is trying to do too much, it’s that he’s trying to do seemingly everything. I will give him that, though: those are the kinds of movies that tend to age the best.
Downsizing opens in theatres in December.
On paper, we do not need another movie about a middle-class, middle-aged man having some sort of dark night of the soul due to his white people problems. In that respect, Mike White’s Brad’s Status is exploring well-trod ground — but it’s also directly about that. It’s a film that explores exactly how predictable, universal and ultimately meaningless the male need for competition and “success” in all of its slippery forms can be. Ben Stiller plays the titular Brad, the president of a non-profit and general malcontent who lives in the shadow of his college buddies (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson and Mike White), all of whom have found some measure of fame and fortune while he remains resolutely upper-middle-class. He has a real soul-searching 72 hours when taking his son (Austin Abrams) on a tour of East Coast colleges, constantly wallowing and self-mythologizing away his own mediocrity.
Ten or 15 years ago, a film like Brad’s Status would have asked us to feel bad for Brad. It would have made him, if not a tragic figure, certainly a sympathetic one, which is exactly what White doesn’t do. Brad is extremely annoying by all accounts, completely lacking in self-awareness yet eager to latch onto anything that may fuel the 20-year pity party he’s currently embarked on. From the start, the audience knows that Brad is pretty much just an old man yelling at a cloud, but the important thing is that he doesn’t.
White’s never been one to mince words. Brad’s Status ranks amongst his most caustic and most confrontational work yet, even if it does rely on a lot of navel-gazing narration from a guy who already navel-gazes out loud most of his life. (He’s a bit like a reverse-image of the character Stiller played in Greenberg, in a way.) It posits that the best way to destroy the sad-white-dad indie is to simply make the character sad from the outside looking in, too.
Brad’s Status opens in theatres on Sept. 22.
George Clooney has often been accused of simply aping the directors he works with the best when it comes time to direct his own films. That certainly springs to mind when watching his latest, Suburbicon. This noirish black comedy is based on a script by the Coens that has laid dormant since 1986. It’s not hard to imagine the young, hungry Coens turning this into something special, because they basically already have. At times, Suburbicon plays like it’s been stitched together using discarded scenes and unused drafts from the first decade of the Coens’ oeuvre — a posthumous hip hop record for artists who aren’t even dead yet.
Nicky Lodge lives in Suburbicon, a “paradisiac” community somewhere in late ’50s New England with his dad (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound mom (Julianne Moore) and his aunt (also Julianne Moore). One night, two men enter their home and chloroform the lot of them, except they use a lot more chloroform for Nicky’s mom, who eventually dies. Things immediately get fishy when Dad seems to be spending a lot more time with his sister-in-law, who has even dyed her hair blonde like her dead sister. As a race riot brews in reaction to a black family moving in next door to the Lodges’, the cracks in Dad’s perfectly conceived plan start showing.
There’s a lot of stuff that’s theoretically good in Suburbicon, but not much works; not the Civil Rights subplot (which has only gained in relevance these days), not the Night of the Hunter-esque child’s perspective, not the oversized performance by Oscar Isaac as a sleazy claims investigator (he works on his own, less so in the movie that surrounds him). Suburbicon gathers lots of ideas and lots of talent but fails to really do anything with it. Clooney has the tone mostly right, but none of it feels lived-in at all. It feels plastic even in its best moments, watchable but overly cynical and so overstuffed that it winds up being about not much at all. Can’t fault Clooney for trying, though — I know I would’ve.
Suburbicon opens in Quebec on Oct. 27.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker follows up his excellent Tangerine with the equally excellent The Florida Project, a film that explores the very fringes of society in much the same way, even if the subject matter is radically different.
Six-year-old Moonee lives with her mother Haley (Bria Vinaite) in a decrepit motel just outside of Disney World. It’s the kind of place where people live all year but pay rent a week at a time, a place full of people down on their luck that’s overseen by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the understanding but somewhat crusty manager of the hotel. Haley’s not a bad mother (well, she does turn tricks with her kid in the immediate vicinity and hawk counterfeit perfume in parking lots), but she’s clearly got too much on her plate, and Moonee spends most of her time wandering around and playing with other kids from the hotel.
With this and Tangerine, Baker strikes me as exactly the opposite of Inarritu: he makes movies about people who live in misery that are nevertheless completely devoid of the miserabilist streak. The Florida Project is joyful and hilarious, but at the same time it’s harsh and heavy. Like Moonee, the viewer tends to forget that stuff isn’t always sunshine and roses until reality comes crashing back. Baker doesn’t linger on the easy signifiers of poverty; there’s even a kind of warped beauty in the washed-out pink facade and mismatched outfits worn by its characters. Even if the film has some moments of black comedy, it’s never exploitative or disrespectful of its characters. The performances are extremely naturalistic, and the film resembles a warped Floridian version of Truffaut’s Small Change — with a lot more spitting.
The Florida Project does not yet have a release date.
Greta Gerwig has a disarming honesty as a performer that may be her greatest asset, so it’s not terribly surprising that her directorial debut also comes fully equipped with that very same disarming honesty. What’s maybe more surprising is how fully Gerwig’s voice comes across in this autobiographical slice-of-life based on Gerwig’s own late teens spent in Sacramento in the early 2000s. Many filmmakers and writers have plumbed their own teenage years to variable results; that Gerwig manages to make what is an overall pretty unremarkable year in the life of a teenage girl so touching, funny and relatable approaches the minor miracle.
Christine (Saoirse Ronan) prefers to be called Lady Bird. She wants to leave Sacramento as soon as humanly possible, even if her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts) are likely too cash-strapped for that to really be a possibility. She’s interested in the arts in a general sense, but not really anything specific. She’s interested in boys, though the two she dates (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet) are hardly ideal choices. She doesn’t like being poor, but she can’t really handle the idea of being rich, either.
Told in a fairly episodic, slice-of-life style, Lady Bird is a warm and funny movie that’s admittedly more likely to appeal to people who are more or less exactly Gerwig’s age. (I am.) It’s not so much that it’s a period piece, but it deals with teenagedom at a very specific time where the Internet was new and weird, only a few people had cellphones and everyone was very afraid of studying in New York for fear of terrorist attacks. Though Lady Bird is clearly modeled after Gerwig herself, Ronan does more than just a Woody Allen-y impression. She’s delightful, and this whole movie is very fucking delightful, and I have nothing more to say about that. Delightful. ■
Lady Bird does not currently have a release date.