TIFF Two-Step: Stars, Stories, and Surprises in 2023 (Day One)
Each year, The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) provides a platform for the fall and winter debuting films eager to become awards contenders. It’s also a swell of unpurchased smaller films looking for distribution. In its 48th year, TIFF is one of the largest film festivals in the world. It showcases well over 200 films over ten days. TIFF shuts down several blocks of King’s Street in Toronto for the festival and its moving parts, including celebrity red carpets, food trucks, and live music. This year is noticeably less star-studded, thanks to the ongoing SAG and WGA strike.
One of the big themes before the festival kicked off Thursday was the surprising number of actors turned directors making their directorial debut. Michael Keaton, Viggo Mortensen, Chris Pine, and Kristin Scott Thomas, to name a few. The festival’s first few days allow journalists and fans to catch up on buzzy films that debuted at Cannes earlier this year. Cate Blanchett’s latest “The New Boy” was included in that lineup, from cinematographer turned director Warrick Thornton. The Australian film focuses on an aboriginal boy who comes to live in a secluded orphanage run by a nun who has taken over from the deceased priest.
The look of the film is extraordinary, sweeping fields of burnt gold in every direction, showcasing the dry isolation. Newcomer Aswan Reid plays “The New Boy,” as they call him, a captivating, spunky debut. His character rarely speaks and mostly observes the new world the Australian government thrusts him into against his will. Audiences will be predisposed to expect certain behaviors and treatment from the nuns, but this story surprises at every turn. Blanchett’s complex portrayal of Sister Eileen has fists up from the first scene, drinking too much and assuming the priest’s role for the greater good of those in her care. Blanchett keeps “The New Boy” intriguing as a nun with no boundaries, even when the film gets lost in its cinematic beauty during the second half.
One of the most buzzed-about films out of Cannes was Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” which garnered a packed press and industry house Thursday morning. Glazer’s previous films “Under the Skin” with Scarlett Johansson and “Birth” with Nicole Kidman greatly divided audiences. His challenging style isn’t for everyone, certainly not for mainstream audiences. “The Zone of Interest” follows the commandant of Auschwitz and his family, who live next door to the camps and proceed to live an everyday life while atrocities happen beyond their high garden walls. What’s so chilling and disturbing about the film is we never see the usual brutality of a holocaust film; instead, Glazer depicts Nazis as if there was nothing abnormal about the lives they were living.
It’s a hard sit. “The Zone of Interest” is supposed to make you uncomfortable. It will be a slight masterpiece for some and lack engagement for others, as it expects a lot from its viewers. Like “The New Boy,” Glazer expects his audience to have seen most of the iconic Holocaust films preceding this one so we can use our cinematic memory and imagination to fill in the blanks.
“The Zone of Interest” is an entire film about irony and only gets better as you discuss it with others who have seen it. It is more of a movie to dissect and discuss in film class than around the water cooler. It’s also a film that will be highly debated for the upcoming award season.
The most emotional film on day one goes to Luke Gilford’s “National Anthem.” It is a coming out and coming-of-age story that also challenges every norm of the modern-day Western. We follow 21-year-old Dylan, played by Charlie Plummer (“Lean on Pete”), as he is welcomed into the world of gay rodeo performers in a rural New Mexico town. Living at home with his alcoholic mother and disabled younger brother, Dylan has little excitement about working a construction job. “I don’t think you’re boring; you just haven’t met your people yet,” says Sky, played by Eve Lindley, who serves up major Juliette Lewis vibes throughout her performance. The colorful characters he meets at Splendor Ranch change Dylan’s life and represent every color of the pride flag.
“National Anthem” would have benefited from a larger budget, more experienced direction, and more star power in the mother, Pepe, and even Dylan roles. It’s a scrappy but poignant story about inclusion and finding your path. It is filled with good one-liners and great talking points but suffers from a rushed third act.
Closing out the first night at the festival was the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated actress Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” “Gosford Park”). Thomas teams up for the third time with her “Horse Whisperer” and “Other Boylen Girl” co-star Scarlett Johansson. What sounded like an “August Osage County” pitch of a family coming back together for their mother’s third marriage was instead more of a weak, soapy melodrama with poor casting and overacting. Based loosely on Thomas’s own loss of two fathers growing up, “North Star” is funny when it shouldn’t be and hits all the wrong dramatic notes.
While the direction and script are nothing to brag about, Thomas, who plays the mother of three girls (Johansson, Sienna Miller, Emily Beecham), has a fiery graveyard speech that finds the energy missing in the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, for us Thomas fans, “North Star” never finds new cinematic or dramatic territory. Johansson as a lesbian Royal Navy Captain is a tough sell, while Miller overacts in every scene as a Hollywood tabloid star. Very little about the film is genuine, including the animated flashbacks.
The search continues in Toronto for original, mind-blowing, and must-see films that will change the dialogue for the rest of the year.