There is a rich genre of coming-of-age movies, Ladybird being the most recent excellent example. Eighth Grade deserves to be a proud member of the repertoire, illuminating the painfully shy, gawky experience of being a 13-year-old girl. Elsie Fisher does an uncanny version of this type, inhabiting the role of Kayla Day like a pro. She lives with her well-meaning dad, crushes on a perfectly inappropriate boy, and distracts herself with YouTube activities—very 2018 all around. This debut directorial achievement by Burnham really ramps up the realism, because even if you were 13 many years ago the emotional truth of Kayla’s experience is powerfully, eternally universal. The tone is comic, but there are several honest moments of discomfort and edge that necessarily attend to the experience of being 13. Yes, we have seen hell: it is the eighth grade.
We showed Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman last season. Here he follows up with another searing tale of repression, also centred on women, but this time the lens is focused on the Orthodox Jewish community of London. This fine cast is headed up by the always stunning Rachel Weisz as the daughter who ran away. When her father, the rabbi, drops dead, Ronit returns to the community she long ago fled for modern times. It’s a bit like waking up to a world that hasn’t changed. Childhood friends, the rituals of devotion, intellectual debates are all still intensely present, compelling Ronit to measure her new, less restrictive life against the one--and the people--she left behind. There are no good or bad guys here. Lelio is more interested in difference and in the chosen—or destined—paths of people’s lives. This is a lovely, moving film by a talented auteur.
There are five contributing nations to this wonderful film, but rest assured this is a decidedly Icelandic story. Set in suburban Reykjavik, this is a parable of all-too-familiar import. A large beautiful tree in one family’s yard casts a long, sun-blocking patch of shade over another. Good trees do not necessarily make good neighbours and before you can say where’s the pruner the confrontation escalates to menacing proportions. Apparently, Icelanders share the same dark side of humanity as the rest of us. With a nod to the Oscar-winning NFB short Neighbours, Under the Tree is a dark and savage satire with a grounding, like all good satire, in the reality of the human condition. It’s not always pretty but you sure can recognize it when you see it.
Another comedy here, also of high order, and widely applauded for being the funniest of the year. The ambitious African-American main character wants to make a difference. He gets his chance in rather unexpected ways when he is hired to do some telemarketing (check the title), by definition a job in hell. Cassius is advised that to make the phone pitches work he really needs to develop his “white voice.” Sure, and soon, enough, performing white takes him well out of his grungy surroundings and up and into the gilded halls of corporate power. This journey is marked by killingly hilarious scenes of professional advancement that will spill your popcorn. The big question is, what does Cassius do when he gets to the top of the white man’s ladder, with all the little people left way down low? This is a blistering, rollicking satire of a film in a time when satire doesn’t even seem possible anymore. Note that director Riley is a well-known rapper and activist and you will especially appreciate the colorful art direction of this fantastic journey.
Van Sant’s movies are perfectly made for a cinema series like ours and we have shown just about all of his smart productions. The subject of the title is graphic artist John Callaghan who penned a 1989 memoire about his life as an adult quadriplegic. Reliably intense, Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of this alcoholic maverick with his usual credibility, transforming himself into a wheel-chair bound rascal who rages against the dying of his power. It’s a dark, comic look at life in the slow lane, enhanced by fine performances and a vibrant score that rises and falls with the character’s misadventures.
Presented in collaboration with the 29th St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. Susan Gordanshekan is the German director and screenwriter of this totally winning film. On the surface, the film is about two gorgeous strangers, both Iranians, Mina and Kian, who agree to marry for practical, even understandable reasons. Their challenge is, of course, to make the marriage work, but their differences keep popping up like annoying obstacles, impeding the possibility of harmony, let alone the hope of love. The real-world context of their relationship speaks so much to 21st century themes of cultural displacement—to accommodation and integration. Not only are these young people new to each other but they are also Iranians speaking in a foreign language, adjusting awkwardly to their new German home while aiming so hard to please. And then there’s the cat, a mangy mop of a loser that starts to assume all the metaphorical weight of the marriage itself. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say that this is a gloriously smart romance turned inside out, pure delight from start to surprising finish.
You do not have to know anything about or even be interested in fashion to enjoy this doc about one of the world’s most brilliant designers. As you would expect, this is a visual riot of colour and spectacle, appropriate to McQueen’s aesthetics. He designed for Bowie and Björk, in case you didn’t get the memo. You can still see his much-coveted skull scarves all over ebay. They just never seem to go out of fashion. McQueen was complicated. He rose from the dole to the halls of Gucci, eventually turning his annual runway shows into must-see extravaganzas, tapping into the popular imaginary and reflecting our darkest desires. His personal life was a self-directed mess, ending tragically. This much acclaimed doc really gets at the man and his contradictory nature, all the while showing us the social-cultural backdrop in which he thrived—stunning and absolutely necessary as a big-screen experience.
Everyone is saying Close will score the Best Actress Oscar for this riveting performance of a singularly devoted woman married to a Nobel-prize winning author of a husband. As wife, mother, and soon-to-be grandmother, Joan Castleman has been the very paragon of spousal attentiveness. Married to a star, she seems to have accepted her place in the patriarchy—that is, until they set off to Stockholm for the grand Nobel ceremony. If ever the phrase “slow burn” applied it was to the character of Joan whose earlier life as an aspiring student and writer is shown to us in illuminating detail. Both Close and Pryce are superbly talented actors and a large part of the pleasure is reveling in the sheer art of their interpersonal dynamic. We know this story, sure, but rarely have we seen such formidable figures living it out for our viewing pleasure. Be warned: we will sell out quickly for this film and so come early.
We have had a lot of demand for this fresh masterwork by the collaborative team of Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky. It will debut at TIFF this fall and we are lucky enough to be screening it in a theatre near you. If you love this planet you will see this film. Burtynsky’s work has long concentrated on the staggering effects of humans on this precious earth. The doc is an adaptation, in a way, of an ambitious larger project about the massive changes we have wrought on the natural world, and the consequences of such interventions. Pictures tell the story here, and no one captures the sheer scale of the human footprint better than these people and their cameras. This should be required viewing for all of us. It is at once disturbing, majestic, glorious, sobering, and poignant. You will feel the earth move under your feet.
Remember Winter Bone, the terrific low-budget film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career? Well director Granik now brings us an equally powerful drama, if not actually even a better one. We are intimately drawn into the life of two characters, father and daughter, who live in the woods, happily for the most part. Will, the dad, suffers from PTSD, and so it is not surprising that he has found a way to live far from the madding crowd. Tom, his daughter, is growing up and into herself, however, and, well, things change. Society has a way of imposing itself, too, and so the drama tracks the struggle of the relationship to find a reasonable future for each of these two, loving people with the full force of the world pressing in on them. It’s hard to describe just how intelligent and powerful a film this is—for its naturalness, social critique, and beautifully nuanced description of people just making do the most honest way they can.
There is something fascinating about identical siblings. This is the story of triplets who were separated at birth, neither of them knowing the others existed. If you are old enough and remember the early Eighties, you might even recall the well-publicized talk-show story of the triplets who are the subject of this riveting documentary. The filmmaker uncovers the astonishing facts of these boys’ early lives, leading eventually to their amazing, almost accidental reunion when they were university students. Why were they separated? What did their adopting parents know about their origins? How did they stumble upon the existence of their others? The answers to these questions turn out to be alarming. Indeed, this is a darker story than first appears, one that will grip you in its unfolding and have you shaking your head right through to the end—the present day, that is.
This is a fitting companion piece to the Series opener, Eighth Grade, although the central character here is in 11th grade, when one’s preoccupation with sexual identity is on bust. In this case, young Cameron is involved with a girl named Coley. When they are caught canoodling Cameron is whisked away to boarding school for a hefty dose of conversion therapy. Hence the title. It’s the early Nineties and adults are behaving badly. This little masterpiece won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and it’s easy to see why. This is no comic book version of kids against parents, or straights vs gays. It’s a more delicate, nuanced treatment of the complexity of behaviour and belief, and it swerves elegantly away from sentimentality or melodrama. You’ll really enjoy this, and especially the fine performance of young Moretz.
Why not end our fall season with this exciting adventure for armchair thrill-seekers? Free Solo is hugely popular not only for its subject but also because of the amazing heights the filmmakers went through to cover it. Not surprisingly, the filmmaker is also more or less the subject. Alex Holland is a well-known climber who scales frighteningly steep rock faces without anything more than his hands and feet. It’s a pretty rare bird who would even think about climbing at all, let alone one who would enable the shooting of it. The film opens us up to his eccentricities. Turns out there’s a physiological explanation—at least in part—for what drives Alex to do what he does. The climber shows us what motivated him in the first place, and how the journey to this actual climb and the filming of it transpired. It’s not for the vertigo-challenged, but then consider you’ll have your feet firmly planted on the theatre floor and won’t have to worry about a thing. Sit back and root for Alex.