TORONTO -- The relationships between parents and children play out on screens at every film festival, of course, though some years it has been the absence of children that has propelled the drama. This year, the Toronto International Film Festival has screened a number of films concerned with the idea of what makes us parents in the first place, and how best to serve and protect those young souls under our care.
Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters, which won the Palme d'Or at last spring's Cannes, takes the idea of family and slowly, methodically deconstructs it. When we first meet Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi), they are smoothly stealing from a Seoul grocery store in a well-practiced harmony. They take their booty back to the small apartment they share with Shota's mother, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), aunt and grandmother. Later that evening, after Osamu spies a sad and lonely looking little girl (Miyu Sasaki) who has been left alone in her cold apartment by her parents, he snatches her up and takes her home with him, adopting her on the spot, the first sign that this family might not be quite as it seems.
From there, Koreeda subtly strips away our conventional assumptions, like a sculptor slowly chipping away at a piece of marble, revealing a startling new form underneath. It turns out that this entire family is fabricated -- the grandmother is largely in name only; the son was another instant adoption, and even Osamu and his wife only got together after dispatching her first husband.
The thing is, even if cut from separate bolts of fabric, the tapestry Osamu and Hatsue have created is beautiful in its own way, with members supporting one another, even as they exploit the situation for their own gain. It's an odd mix, and not easy to interpret cleanly: Even though Granny is seemingly being used for her space and income, in return, she gets a house full of life and humor, and gets to spend the last stage of her life among people she cares about, if only by fabrication. Osamu actually is a very good father, oddly enough, caring for his adopted kids as his own, and even dispensing reassuring father/son advice to Shota, who seems perfectly happy.
As befitting the egalitarian Koreeda, for every beat of positivity there is one of equal sadness. The film suggests the idea of family comes much more from the heart than the blood, but the director still afflicts his characters with complicated, not entirely selfless motives. By the end, with authorities restoring things to conventional order, we are left to wonder if this outcome is in anyone's best interest. The film ends with Yuri, now restored to parents who still don't care that she exists, playing by herself again. Her plaintive expression in the film's last frames will haunt you for days.
Similarly downbeat is Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy, based on the dual memoirs by father/son combo David and Nic Sheff about Nic's drug addiction and numerous rehabs. Nic seemingly has it all, loving (though divorced) parents, good looks, keen intelligence, and fierce artistic abilities. He seems like the kind of kid for whom things come easily, but unfortunately that also includes a nasty meth habit and a desire for chaos that's nearly all consuming.
Casting for the role was of course paramount, and in that the producers couldn't have made a better choice than Timothee Chalamet, whose turn in last year's Call Me By Your Name was damn near transcendent. Chalamet, with his otherworldly good looks and perfectly wavy hair, seems like a product of woodland faeries, so slight and luminescent is he.
For Nic's long-suffering father (admirably played by Steve Carell), his pride in Nic's obvious gifts is turned on its head by his son's descent into self-destruction. A successful writer out of the Bay Area, with a happy remarriage, two adorable, young children and a fabulous glass-and-wood house up in the mountains, he's not used to dealing with this sort of failure, and at first is at a loss as to how to react. He's a quick study, though. Through all the countless ups and downs of Nic's addiction cycle, Dave finally gets to the agonizing point where he has to let his son go, and let him follow his own path, however miserable and dangerous it might become.
This is not a standard redemption arc, in other words. Van Groeningen, whose previous work includes the good but thoroughly depressing Broken Circle Breakdown, does not play to a crowd. He's more dour than inspiring, and his aggressive music cues can be off-putting, be they loud acid Jazz, Sigur Ros, or a too obvious cut from Fiddler on the Roof.
Instead of heartwarming treacle, we're subjected to the emotional anguish of a parent who has to learn this is a battle he cannot help his son win directly. The downside of Van Goreningen's emotionally distant style is we never quite feel the full weight of their loss and pain. It's more clinically informational than emotionally engaging, which doesn't allow for deep understanding. For all his excellent work in the role, Chalamet's Nic is as much a cypher to us as he is to his distraught father.
Protecting one's children is also foremost in the mind of Elen (Maxine Peake), the matriarch in William McGregor's spooky Gwen, but you certainly wouldn't know it to observe her in action. As the mother of two girls on a mountainous farmstead in 18th-century Wales, she has no choice but to be harshly clear, especially with her teenage daughter, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), who is beginning to chafe under her mother's unforgiving rule. Her husband is off to war somewhere unspecified, and their lives are close to the bone, such that when a series of horrible things starts happening -- their sheep are all slaughtered one night, the potatoes in the ground begin to spoil, Elen's epileptic attacks become more frequent, and their lone horse breaks his leg and has to be put down -- the family has precious little resources to draw upon.
Unlike its natural comparison film, Robert Eggers' brilliant The Witch, what at first appears to be supernatural forces turns out to be a different kind of devil: the human capitalist. Their farm, it turns out, is much coveted by a ruthless mining baron (Mark Lewis Jones), who stops at literally nothing to acquire it.
McGregor's camera captures the studied contrast in the Welsh highlands, both staggeringly beautiful, with its high peaks and deep green ridges, and its singularly inhospitable conditions, cold, rain swept and forever overcast. It's not a land that welcomes you; it tries its best to send you packing.
At first, McGregor plays it as if Elen is the natural culprit, having made some sort of unholy pact that has come to haunt them, but by the end, we realize just how much she has been sacrificing for her two daughters. She might not have been pleasant, but it turns out she gave them what she could for the best chance of their survival.
If you'd like another reminder of just how old you've become, Jamie Lee Curtis appears in the David Gordon Green "extension" of Halloween, not as a mother, mind you, (or just a mother, I should say) but as a grandmother. It has been 40 years since Michael Myers last laid waste to Haddonfield, and in that time Laurie Strode (Curtis) has become completely paranoid and unhinged, suffering from PTSD from that night back in 1978 when she first encountered Myers (Nick Castle), an event that left her friends murdered and her permanently traumatized.
Focusing that pain and fear into action, Laurie has spent the last several decades preparing herself and her resentful grown daughter (Judy Greer) for Myers' eventual return. She fortifies her house, acquires an impressive arsenal of guns and weapons, and goes through extensive training just to be prepared. When, on Halloween night 40 years later, Myers breaks out of the psych ward to assume his revenge, Laurie is anything but unprepared.
Gordon Green, a strong filmmaker in his own right, treads a difficult line in pleasing generational fans of the original, while adding enough updated elements to keep it feeling like more than a simple retread (an affliction many of the film's countless sequels couldn't have been bothered to do). It doesn't always work -- in point of fact, as entertaining as it can be, it never achieves anything resembling the apprehensive spookiness of the original -- but it's an honest, caring attempt, as opposed to a slick money grab.
More interestingly, it also adds a welcome feminist bent to the proceedings, with Laurie, her daughter, and her granddaughter (Virginia Gardner) all joining together to turn the tables on Myers. Gordon Green offers some pointed (and highly amusing) role reversals, including one simple shot near the climax that brought the house down at the TIFF midnight screening I attended. It turns out Laurie's unflagging paranoia and insistence on preparation was the best gift she could bestow upon her daughter.
In the end, as always, the fate of Myers is left ambiguous, setting the stage for the inevitable sequel to come, but at least the old boy got a chance to don the mask and slash the butcher knife one more time before having to submit to a new series of inevitable public humiliations.
MovieStyle on 09/14/2018
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