Timothée Chalamet and Chicoutimi shine on the second day of TIFF

A Quebec coming-of-age tale, grim addiction drama and Icelandic drama with an absurdist bent on the second day of the Toronto International Film Festival.

My first year attending TIFF, I made a total scrub mistake and booked a day where I saw exclusive dark, miserable movies — 75 per cent of which had violent sexual assault and/or murder scenes in them. This is, as you would probably guess, not advisable. If you’re mainlining films for a week, the last thing you want to do is exhaust yourself emotionally any time before the last day, since you’re likely to be physically exhausted either way. This year, I’ve tried to avoid this in my planning, but it’s not always avoidable, which is why I spent the better part of today watching addiction dramas starring guys who were in Lady Bird.

Ben Is Back is still under embargo for a couple of days so more on that later, but this unadvisable juxtaposition does make the point that even things that are fundamentally similar can be markedly different. Ben Is Back and Beautiful Boy play out very differently, but they’re still kind of a lot to deal with back to back.

Beautiful Boy

David Sheff (Steve Carell) was a celebrated writer with a big, beautiful house in the country, a loving wife, two blond-haired moppet kids and all the privilege in the world. He was worldly, compassionate and open-minded — so why couldn’t that be enough to keep his oldest kid, Nicolas (Timothée Chalamet), off drugs? Beautiful Boy looks at addiction from the perspective of a loving parent who finds themselves faced with an unanswerable question: why can’t I help him?

Based on twin memoirs by the Sheffs, Beautiful Boy is considerably less grim than it might sound like, although its repetitive-by-design structure of irregular-but-inevitable relapse does become emotionally taxing over time. In the early going, it’s a little hard to swallow Carell when he snaps at his son; he keeps the reedy, nasal whine of his most memorable comedic characters, which softens the blow some. It’s Chalamet who really impresses in the early going with a performance devoid of artifice and the kind of unintentional glamour that inevitably arises in movies like this.

As the film progresses, however, the performances switch; Carell becomes incredibly touching as a man at the end of his rope, while Chalamet’s descent into addiction becomes more mannered and familiar. Director Felix van Groeningen approaches the material with lots of panache (his use of music — particularly hazy, narcotic shoegaze songs that he lets play out for minutes on end — is fantastic) but it seemed to keep me at arm’s length for whatever reason. It’s hard to fully connect with it despite its boundless compassion.

Beautiful Boy is set for release in Montreal on Oct. 26.

La disparition des lucioles

Here’s where I throw any semblance of objectivity out the window. Sébastien Pilote’s La disparition des lucioles is, in many aspects, a fairly typical coming-of-age story. It’s well-observed and well-acted and funny and a little by-the-book — but it also happens to be shot more or less in my hometown (more accurately one town over) in Saguenay, which is something that I’ve only witnessed once in my entire life. (It was the thoroughly unwatchable French/Quebec co-prod Le bonheur de Pierre, and it did not make me feel proud.)

I’ve connected to many coming-of-age films over the years, but Pilote’s really playing hardball with my emotions here. Karelle Tremblay stars as Léonie, a moody high school senior who’s had enough of everyone asking what her plans for the future are. She resents her stepfather (François Papineau), a right-wing radio pundit, for hammering the town so hard with his anti-union rhetoric that he had the local plant shut down, sending her father (Luc Picard) to work up north for month-long stretches. She’s drifting away from her high-school friends, instead choosing to spend most of her time with Steve (Pierre-Luc Brilliant), her much-older hesher guitar teacher; though their relationship is not exactly romantic, it works out to being just about the only thing in their respective lives.

I suppose it’s inaccurate to really call this a coming-of-age since Léonie’s strict refusal to grow and change is one of the film’s central themes; though she says she dreams of escaping, the best she can do is bail on social situations by hopping on a bus. That having been said, it’s very hard to argue with a movie about young people feeling trapped that was shot in the very same spots where I once felt trapped. I just about got up and started cheering when Steve drove up to the guitar store of my youth or when Léonie ran away from the venerable Chicoutimi steakhouse Chez Georges. It’s far from a universal experience, but damn.

La disparition des lucioles is set for release on Sept. 21.

Woman at War

A choir director becomes the world’s most unassuming ecoterrorist in the lightly absurd Icelandic dramedy Woman at War. It’s never quite clear why Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) has taken it upon herself to destroy the Icelandic aluminium industry by methodically tearing down electric pylons, but she’s doing a pretty good job of it, sought by Icelandic authorities who know her only as the “Mountain Woman.” These plans for upheaval are somewhat compromised when an old request for adoption comes through; there’s a young girl in Ukraine waiting for a mother, so whatever plans she may have are going to need to go through ASAP.

There’s a twinge of deadpan absurdity running through Woman at War, from the musicians who always appear somewhere in the scene whenever music starts up on the soundtrack (decked out in tweed suits, they often stare forlornly at the action powerlessly), to the presence of Halla’s yoga-teacher twin sister (played, of course, by the same actress) to the presence of a hapless South American tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) who’s always at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s reminiscent of less-mannered Roy Anderssen or Aki Kaurismaki, but while I found it plenty charming, it’s so low-key that it feels like its stakes are much lower than they actually turn out to be.

Woman at War is set for release in Montreal in 2019.