Festiville at TIFF: Part 1—In Praise of Medium-Sized Movies

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From men you shouldn’t fall for to nannies you shouldn’t have hired, Festiville correspondent Dominic Corry encounters human fragility and fallibility at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

We film fans often lament the death of “medium”-sized movies—those that exist in the increasingly wide space between mega-budget blockbusters and tiny indies. Well, it turns out medium-sized movies do still exist, and they’re at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Although geo-restrictions prevented me from viewing some of the more high profile films I was excited for (like The Power of the Dog, Petite Maman and Silent Night) my (virtual) TIFF experience this year was principally—and appreciably—comprised of several medium-sized movies that explored human fragility and fallibility, some more successfully than others. 

Inexorable

Directed by Fabrice Du Welz. Writers: Aurélien Molas, Joséphine Darcy-Hopkins 

French/Belgian drama thriller Inexorable is one of those European films that trades explicitly in very familiar Yuppies In Peril tropes, but gets away with it by virtue of not being in English. It tells the anything-but-original story of a novelist (Benoît Poelvoorde, a long way from Man Bites Dog) coasting on acclaim for one particular book and his rich publisher wife (Mélanie Doutey) who move into her old family estate so he can write and she can refurbish.

After the wife hires a comely young woman (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) to be the new nanny—hasn’t this woman ever seen a movie?—things get inevitably messy and the characters all repeatedly make inexplicably idiotic decisions. But there’s a reason these tropes endure, and the film justifies sustained interest as it descends into laughable luridity. Letterboxd member Charlene captured its slightly shameful appeal in her review: “It was an erotic thriller about a writer in a beautiful old house—it’s clichéd but who cares, what’s not to like?”. 

Violet 

Written and directed by Justine Bateman

In his review of James Cameron’s 1986 classic Aliens, legendary critic Roger Ebert complained that Cameron was so effective at building suspense, the film became an unpleasant viewing experience for him. “The movie is so intense that it creates a problem for me as a reviewer: Do I praise its craftsmanship, or do I tell you it left me feeling wrung out and unhappy?”

I always thought Ebert was being silly here—the movie is supposed to be intense! But after watching Justine Bateman’s Violet, I think I finally properly relate to where Ebert was coming from. The new movie, which follows a film executive (Olivia Munn) plagued by an ever-present, undermining inner voice (Justin Theroux), does such a good job of conveying the main character’s anxiety spirals that it becomes difficult to sit through at times.  

The portrayal of “the business” may occasionally feel like unexplored Entourage threads, but this is intriguingly informed by Bateman’s own experience as a woman in Hollywood. It’s an almost Godard-ian sensory experiment at times: thoughts appear on screen as written words, film footage is projected behind characters, panic attacks are represented by the shots becoming increasingly red as the anxiety escalates. “If there exists a film, any film at all, that has better portrayed the inside of a person’s mind, I have yet to see it,” Trevor writes on Letterboxd. Sara calls it “a personal attack”. Everyone agrees that it’s a career-best performance from Munn, who is due for a breakthrough role. This could be it. 

The Wheel 

Directed by Steve Pink, written by Trent Atkinson 

A young, damaged couple headed for divorce goes into the woods to try and save their marriage in The Wheel, which is a slightly cheerier movie than that description suggests. It seems like a conscious change of pace for director Steve Pink, best known for broad comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine, although he has some experience in this arena with his remake of About Last Night

Led by promising performances from Taylor Gray (the voice of young Jedi Ezra Bridger in Star Wars: Rebels) and Native American actor Amber Midthunder (currently starring in the Roswell reboot), the film is earnest in its search for the uncomfortable truths of relationships. Rather slight for most of its running time, it builds up to a hugely impactful finalé, which Steve Warner thinks almost justifies the film: “The last ten minutes nearly make up for the borderline obnoxious preceding 70, filled with characters that are either abrasive, boring, or superfluous”. Of the highly flawed main characters, Gaby opines that “there’s really nothing remarkable about The Wheel, but the chemistry between the actors and the ending were what saved it for me.”

Sundown

Written and directed by Michel Franco 

Tim Roth is a fascinatingly silent presence at the heart of Michel Franco’s Sundown, a slow-burn drama about a wealthy man attempting to escape his life while on holiday with his family in Acapulco. Initially coming across as a drawn-out riff on the final shot of Five Easy Pieces, it is eventually revealed to be something else entirely. Franco relies upon, then dramatically subverts, audience presumptions, but the official TIFF summary spoils the twist—so don’t read it!

While I relished every moment of this curiously quiet film, reactions from LB members have been mixed. Marianna Neal writes that “even though there were parts of this film that were undeniably well done, overall it’s a big miss” while Jordan King calls it “Sunkissed, serene, surreal, and shot through with an unnerving dosage of sociopathy” and observes insightfully that it is “more about us as viewers than any of the characters.”

You Are Not My Mother

Written and directed by Kate Dolan

As well as being the first runner-up for the TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award for her impressively unnerving feature debut You Are Not My Mother, Irish filmmaker Kate Dolan also gets the award for best TIFF director video intro from me (it was a while before I realised I wasn’t watching the actual movie).

The film features some of the scariest daylight horror scenes since It Follows, and Hazel Doupe is utterly stunning as a bullied teen whose depressed mother (Carolyn Bracken, also phenomenal) begins displaying some odd affectations after disappearing for a day. The folk horror elements aren’t mind-blowingly original, but they benefit significantly from the authenticity of the characters and the setting. This feels like what might result if Andrea Arnold decided to make a horror film. And like Relic, it effectively utilizes horror as a way to explore mental health issues.

As Fernando Montes de Oca writes, it’s a “prime example of how this sub-genre delivers the goods when we care about the characters, we understand the metaphors and we can relate...to the horrifying situations.”

True Things 

Directed by Harry Wootliff. Writers: Wootliff, Deborah Kay, Davies Molly Davies

Relatable human flaws are very much on display in (female filmmaker) Harry Wootliff’s woozy True Things, in which Ruth Wilson stars as a lonely young English woman whose fragile life is upended when she starts seeing a ne’er do well played by Tom Burke, who, between this and The Souvenir, is really carving out a niche for himself playing men you shouldn’t fall for.

Although Maggie regards the film as “an extremely impersonal, banal depiction of a toxic relationship,” Shia Rudolf argues that it’s “painfully relatable. That horrible place where you’re so deeply taken with someone that you’ll brush aside all their slights to have just one more moment of magic. The mind games you’ll play with yourself to convince yourself that it’s all worth it.”

Wootliff’s commitment to her lead character’s fallibility is admirable, and the uneasy chemistry between her two main characters is rarely less than engrossing. Like the best films I viewed during TIFF 2021, it uses the intimacy of cinema to project a powerful empathy for a lead character who might not otherwise get much.

—Dominic Corry

Pictured L-R: Inexorable, Violet, True Things.