Toronto International Film Festival 2023, Part 1: Days 1-3

After four long years away, I returned with Mama Mordor in tow to the Toronto International Film Festival at an acute transitional moment. Paralyzed by strikes from the WGA and SAG-AFTRA that contemptuous billionaire studio executives have shown remarkably little interest in ending, TIFF’s 48th edition lacked the usual draw of high-wattage Hollywood star power. To top it off, days before the festival kicked off TIFF was pushed to pause a lucrative new partnership with a development company that drew ire for plans to privatize a vast swathe of Toronto’s public parklands, and it was announced that Bell, TIFF’s lead sponsor for the past 28 years, would be ending its relationship with the festival after this edition. Amidst this tumultuous industry environment, TIFF gambled on a larger-than-normal presence from high-profile foreign films and projects from actors-turned-directors, leading to a largely successful and idiosyncratic edition. This success started with the warmly-received international premiere of one of this year’s most anticipated films, for which I was lucky enough to be in attendance…

The Boy and the Heron, courtesy GKIDS.

There’s a tragicomic morbidity to the way that Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, and the media have talked about The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki’s latest final film: he’s done this time, we really mean it, he’s making this last movie and then shuffling off this mortal coil! It’s no surprise that, even for a director as notorious for repeatedly coming out of retirement as Miyazaki, he wouldn’t anticipate directing another seven-years-in-the-making hand-drawn epic at 82 years old. (Of course, since its premiere here last Thursday, Ghibli execs have said Miyazaki is already inundating them with ideas for what would become his eighth final film.) As a potential swan song, a thesis statement to hammer home the environmental and humanist entreaties that have been threaded through Miyazaki’s long and storied career, and a fitting companion piece to The Wind Rises (Miyazaki’s previous last film), The Boy and the Heron is wildly successful. 

From its impressionistic opening scenes – a chilling and decidedly un-Miyazakian recurring motif that shows the art of a titan of filmmaking can still evolve even as an octogenarian – the film is an intensely personal, visually stunning meditation on grief, trauma, and humanity’s self-destructiveness that dives deeper into the human psyche and dream logic than he’s ever done before. As Mahito, a young boy who experiences great loss at a tender age, shifts between an emotionally heightened, grounded reality and an otherworld dominated by anthropomorphic avians, the film explodes with color, allegory, humor, and a profound creepiness that turns the occasional body horror that has been sprinkled throughout Miyazaki’s works up to 11. The Boy and the Heron is a demanding film, with a shagginess – particularly in its middle third – that can keep its surreality from feeling truly immersive, but every aspect of the filmmaking, from the spectacularly inventive animation of fire to the off-kilter humor to Joe Hisaishi’s restrained score, clicks into place to create a thoughtful and thrilling whole. 

The Boy and the Heron: ★★★★½

Documentarian Jen Markowitz turns a location that will strike terror in the hearts of most queer audiences into a warm and accepting home away from home with their fizzy debut Summer Qamp. Far from the horrors of conversion therapy or a slasher film where the gay character is the first to go, rural Alberta’s Camp fYrefly is a safe space for queer teens to figure out who they are and spend a few days basking in the glory of being around other kids like them. These kids all have experienced trauma through friends, family members, and authority figures who have betrayed them, but Markowitz allows us to watch the baggage drop away as they explore new aspects of their identity and have fun without the threat of not being accepted. To be able to bring such transcendent joy to a child as doing their makeup and helping them really see themselves for the first time is an immense gift, and watching it as a viewer just as much so. Those transcendent scenes are very much the exception, though, as the heart of the film is long, meandering monologues from campers reflecting on their identities intercut with quotidian camp scenes. What you end up with is a very run-of-the-mill documentary with sporadic bursts of effervescent happiness. 

Summer Qamp: ★★★

The first stinker of my TIFF 2023 experience was Kristin Scott Thomas’s directorial debut, the semi-autobiographical North Star. The film centers on the rocky personal lives of three sisters: unlucky-in-love actress Victoria (Sienna Miller), jilted mom Georgina (Emily Beecham), and glass ceiling-breaking lesbian (more on that in a minute) naval captain Katherine (Scarlett Johansson, with a barely-there accent). The sisters have returned home for the third wedding of their mother (Scott Thomas), with all the baggage that comes from decades of English stoicism and two fathers whose lives were cut tragically short. Scott Thomas chooses to focus most of the runtime on the ladies’ current troubles, with the freewheeling nothingness of the film’s first hour leading to a mandatory but unearned family blowout in which Scott Thomas saves the meatiest moments for herself. Relationships aren’t well-established, leaving us with no clue how these characters feel about each other and what history is bearing down on them outside of the shared trauma of losing their fathers. The latter is hinted at through some genuinely interesting animated flashbacks from Johansson’s Katherine that breathe a bit of life into the Lifetime-y affair. For some reason the entire first act of the movie chooses to hide Katherine’s queerness, referring to her partner only as Jack (a delightful if underused Freida Pinto, whose mother is played by a scene-stealing Sindhu Vee) and eschewing pronouns. It’s 2023 and Katherine’s queerness doesn’t seem to be a problem for the family, so as with so many things about this turgid dud…why?

North Star: ★

The Contestant, courtesy Misfits Entertainment.

Billed as the weirdest stranger-than-fiction story at this year’s festival, Clair Titley’s debut documentary feature The Contestant tells the absurd and horrifying true story of the late-90s Japanese reality show Denpa Shonen: A Life in Prizes, in which budding comedian and Fukushima native Nasubi was essentially tricked into spending more than a year naked and locked in a tiny, windowless apartment, living off of only what he could win from magazine and radio sweepstakes. With no contract in place, and in fact having been told that the material he was filming wasn’t even going to be used, a depressed (and at times suicidal) Nasubi won his way out of isolation after nearly 15 months to embark on an up and down career in entertainment marked by moments of terrible tragedy. Titley struggles to give either Nasubi or Denpa Shonen producer Tsuchiya a clear narrative arc, but she expertly edits the film to make the audience complicit in Nasubi’s torture as we laugh at humorous excerpts from the original show and cry over what this man went through.

The Contestant: ★★★½

It’s at this point that I had planned to be reintroducing everyone’s favorite part of my TIFF roundups – what does Mama Mordor think? – but unfortunately Amtrak bungled my mother’s escape from Upstate NY and some very friendly gents in the rush line were the lucky recipients of our tickets to Wim Wenders’s Cannes Best Actor-winning Perfect Days. Luckily, NEON has snatched this one up for distribution Stateside, so at least I’ll get another crack at it soon!

Day 3 started with the illustrious Mama Mordor in tow, and Silver Dollar Road, a timely documentary about the Reels family’s decades-long legal struggle to hold onto their coastal North Carolina property based on a blockbuster 2019 ProPublica article. The extended Reels family is an absolutely winning cast of characters, but the movie around them does very little to establish their legal struggle or the structural inequities that have allowed a series of illegitimate lawsuits over their prime real estate going back to the 1970s based on a deed falsified by an offshoot of the family. It’s assumed that viewers will have some existing knowledge of the Reconstruction South and the struggles of Black farmers and sharecroppers to make something out of coastal swamps, and the current state of the family’s fight to hold onto their property is left up in the air. An animated tree conceit that ultimately goes nowhere is used to introduce the many branches of the family and in one extended sequence to portray brothers Melvin and Licurtis’s eight years in jail after being convicted for trespassing on their own land. Silver Dollar Road depends entirely on the personality and righteous fury of the Reels family, and it is a stroke of luck for director Raoul Peck that they have so much of both.

Silver Dollar Road: ★★★

Mama Mordor: “I was really worried in the beginning that it would be boring, but the family was so lively! I can’t believe what they’re going through, why didn’t anyone put the guy with the fake deed in his place?” 

The Peasants, courtesy BreakThru Productions.

DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman follow up 2017’s Loving Vincent with the stunning The Peasants, a major achievement in animation and filmic storytelling. Comprising more than 40,000 oil paintings, The Peasants is quite literally art in motion, flowing seamlessly between styles and frame rates to cultivate the rich emotional landscape of Jagna, a young woman living in the 19th-century Polish countryside who finds herself beset on all sides by admirers and accusations. As we follow Jagna through the seasons, and with them the planting cycle that is her community’s lifeblood, she falls for married man Antek, is wed to the wealthiest farmer in the village – Antek’s father – and becomes the subject of a host of scandalous rumors and plots. The film’s ambition catches up to it for a stretch in the middle, sagging between two pivotal scenes centered on folk music and dance. It’s also those two scenes that best highlight the film’s many strengths: Lukasz Rostkowski’s stirring score brings a lively, modern interpretation to the musical traditions of various Eastern European communities; the performances, filmed before being hand-painted by more than 100 artists across four studios, are fully inhabited, bringing this village to life; and the sumptuous paintings lend the animation an unprecedented kineticism. 

The Peasants: ★★★★½

Mama Mordor: “That was beautiful and so different, but also really depressing.”

Woman of the Hour, courtesy AGC Studios.

Tony- and Oscar-nominated actress Anna Kendrick’s true crime directorial debut, Woman of the Hour, marks the arrival of a fresh new voice and a marked shift in a genre that has become dominated by nasty and sensationalistic tropes. In Woman of the Hour, Kendrick dramatizes the horrifying crimes of Rodney Alcala, who brutalized women across the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s and appeared on an episode of The Dating Game in 1978. Through the stories of several of Alcala’s actual and would-be victims, chief among them The Dating Game contestant Cheryl Bradshaw – played by Kendrick herself with self-aware cynicism, biting humor, and barely checked terror – viewers are brought into the minds of these women as they fight for their lives. By staying so firmly centered on the victims, Kendrick upends the frequently problematic true crime genre and ups the ante while bringing a much-needed dose of humanity. This is a frightening, engrossing film, brought down only by an elliptical structure that regularly cuts away at moments of peak tension, reducing the high-octane piece’s (already significant) impact. 

Woman of the Hour: ★★★★

Mama Mordor: “I thought it could’ve just been a good 20/20 episode.” [an hour later] “Actually I think it just creeped me out too much to be objective. But also it probably is an interesting 20/20 episode!”

That’s it for the first part of this year’s TIFF coverage. I’ll be back early next week with my thoughts on the rest of my time at TIFF (and, of course, Mama Mordor’s musings!), including a triumphant sophomore outing from one of Japan’s most exciting new directors and the worst film I’ve had the displeasure of seeing at TIFF!

You can find more of my reviews (and musings on the Oscars) here on The Avocado, and on Letterboxd.