Finn Wolfhard TIFF review Hell of a Summer

TIFF Reviews: Finn Wolfhard’s feature directorial debut and more

PLUS Ewan McGregor and Ellen Burstyn in Mother, Couch and When Evil Lurks, the latest film by horror master Demián Rugna.

The 2023 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival began on Sept. 7 and runs through Sept. 17.

Mother, Couch

Mother, Couch TIFF review
Mother, Couch

Niclas Larsson’s debut feature Mother, Couch sees three siblings reunite, kind of, after their mother sits down on an expensive couch in a dilapidated furniture store and refuses to leave. The cast, headed by Ewan McGregor, has excellent dark comedic timing, particularly Taylor Russell as the bewilderingly evasive and flirty daughter of the furniture store owner. Likewise, to the pantheon of difficult mothers on the screen, add Ellen Burstyn’s wonderful portrayal of this needy and desperate matriarch, who we still feel for despite how excruciating it would be to be her actual child.

There’s a big reveal in Mother, Couch and there’s always a risk that the pleasure of watching a film with a built-in punchline dwindles once you “get it,” but this is a tight script, very well shot and scored. The total delight in family dysfunction trumps any potential disappointment if you see through the scenario a bit too soon. 

Certain narrative elements may fit a little too precisely together, instead of leaning into the delirium and claustrophobia with which Larsson sets the stage. On the whole, Mother, Couch is a lot of fun (in a stressful way!), an assessment of the family dynamics that shape us and the sometimes impossible nature of forgiveness. (Nora Rosenthal) 

Hell of a Summer

Finn Wolfhard TIFF review Hell of a Summer
Hell of a Summer

Best known for his role as Mike Wheeler on Stranger Things, Finn Wolfhard has been branching out as a director since 2020. His short film Night Shifts was a charming, if not slight, film about friends reconnecting under stressful circumstances. Though little more than a skit, the movie offered some hope that should he work on his craft, Wolfhard could be a competent, if not great filmmaker. Billy Bryk, who co-starred in Night Shifts, joins forces with Wolfhard as co-writer and co-director (they also star) in their feature debut, Hell of a Summer. Playing on sleep-away camp slasher film tropes with a Gen Z twist, Hell of a Summer only disappoints as the story of camp councillors hooking up and misbehaving at Camp Pinewood fails to subvert any expectations. 

If Hell of a Summer fails, it’s almost exclusively due to a lack of ambition. Horror audiences are notoriously forgiving for going over familiar tropes as long as the violence and characters are pushed in new and compelling directions. They want to be shocked and awed. Though an R-rated film, nearly all the kills in Hell of a Summer unfold offscreen. While this makes some narrative sense, it feels like a cop-out. Why even make a slasher film if you aren’t willing to show it? Given the film’s comic tone (lacking in jokes but heavy in jokey intonation), there was an opportunity to go larger than life, even outright silly — completely missed opportunities. The twist and storytelling aren’t particularly creative, and it lacks any subtext or consideration that would have made it at least vaguely interesting. Though the cast is above average for a low-grade slasher, they can only do much to save this limp and forgettable directorial effort. It’s a film without a point of view or identity. (Justine Smith)

When Evil Lurks

When Evil Lurks TIFF review
When Evils Lurks

Watching Demián Rugna’s Terrified with a packed Fantasia audience ranks as one of the best experiences of my cinematic life. It’s an unusually haunting ghost story with some of the best scares in modern memory — at one particular moment, the audience was pushed to the brink and screams filled the room. His latest film, When Evil Lurks, explores a much different kind of horror as the paranormal is traded in for pure evil. What remains consistent, though, is Rugna’s ability to shock an audience into submission.

In a remote village in Argentina, two brothers find a demon-infected man. Scared and unsure what to do, they try to transport his body out of town, only to unleash a terrible evil onto the village. It’s not long before the audience realizes that When Evil Lurks holds nothing sacred. Horror taboos rarely transgressed are dealt with in horrific brazenness. The voice of evil, which possesses dogs and children, shows no mercy to the most vulnerable members of society.

If Terrified was a film that built tremendous suspense, When Evil Lurks uses gore and shock to force the audience into submission. It’s a film about personal responsibility and the myriad ways humanity is deluded into believing we are above or somehow outside of the brutality of the natural world. Not since The Sadness has a horror film been willing to test the audience to such extremes. Whether the whole thing comes together is yet to be decided, and undoubtedly, the movie will ruffle some feathers. Still, it’s undeniable: Rugna is an absolute master of horror, dread and shock, one of the greatest newish voices in horror that we’ve seen in a long time. (Justine Smith)

The Rye Horn

The Rye Horn O Corno TIFF review
The Rye Horn

Jaione Camborda’s The Rye Horn (O Corno) transports us to the rustic reality of 1971 Galicia’s Arousa Island, opening with a gripping, emotionally charged 10-minute home birth scene that immediately immerses viewers in its profound themes.

The film artfully captures the essence of motherhood. Within this intimate setting, a group of women spanning various ages comes together to facilitate the birth, underscoring the movie’s central theme: the profound connection between women and motherhood. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear that motherhood is anything but simple. It’s a complex, multifaceted journey, much like María, the film’s brilliantly portrayed protagonist, brought to life by Janet Navas.

María’s journey takes a compelling twist when she intervenes to assist a troubled young woman. This compassionate act sets off a chain of events that forces María to flee from Galicia to Portugal, abandoning her former life and identity. The film skillfully explores her transformation and grapples with the looming question: Can she embrace motherhood amid the tumultuous circumstances of her new reality? Her inner and outer journeys are exquisitely captured through the film’s sensuous and inquisitive cinematography, masterfully orchestrated by Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças, who encapsulates the essence of Spanish and Portuguese rural landscapes with the new ALEXA 35.

Camborda’s film is both visual and emotional, inviting us to contemplate life’s intricate complexities. Through María’s compelling narrative and Camborda’s masterful storytelling, we’re reminded of the inherent beauty in embracing life’s challenges, even when they appear overwhelming. The Rye Horn is a testament to the power of the human spirit and the enduring strength that resides within the essence of womanhood and motherhood. (Chico Peres Smith)

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