Critic's Notebook: At Toronto 2017, Women Took the Lead

Courtesy of TIFF
From left: 'I, Tonya,' 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,' 'Molly's Game'

The most encouraging trend at this year's Toronto International Film Festival was the plethora of fine female performances, including superb work from Saoirse Ronan, Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain and Margot Robbie.

To attempt to accurately evaluate a film festival with some 250 entries in it (a wise reduction of about 20 percent from 2016) is akin to describing the proverbial elephant by touching just one of its legs. But, as they had been at Venice and Telluride just beforehand, the prevailing winds at the Toronto International Film Festival were, like the weather, generally favorable and certainly intermittently bracing enough to put memories of a sorry cinematic summer happily behind.

If there was a grand slam winner at TIFF 2017, it was Fox Searchlight, which brought to town its trifecta of the big Venice victor, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's hugely entertaining Battle of the Sexes and Martin McDonough's insidiously engaging Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It's hard to remember when a single company debuted three such singular and accomplished films together at any festival at the same time (they will be released between late September and early December), and rarely has the international festival scene witnessed anything like the magnificent spectacle of the widely beloved del Toro bouncing tirelessly between Venice, then Telluride, then back to Venice to collect his prize, then to Toronto, where he did endless press — and where, coincidentally, he not only shot Shape of Water (including one scene filmed at the Elgin Theatre) but where he now resides.

If, on the American indie front, there was another champ this September, it had to be longtime indie stalwart Greta Gerwig, who broke through as a writer-director with the significantly autobiographical, wonderfully observed and vitally engaging Lady Bird; it's the rare film about which, at least this far, there seems to be no dissent whatsoever. Gerwig traverses territory that's been trodden countless times before — the growing pains of one's late teens that include rebellion against parents, sexual awakening and leaving the nest — but makes it all feel fresh again.

And then there is Downsizing, the film some of us consider a masterpiece — a work full of nothing but narrative surprises, one of both weight and wit, humor and drama — that many other people like but just up to a point, and which no middle-grounder-or-less has convincingly critiqued. This is the mystery film of the season, one so self-evidently complete as entertainment and thoughtful drama and yet which few are celebrating. It would be heartening to think that, between now and its December release, a path could be found for its wide public acceptance.

There were other worthwhile films at TIFF of various shapes, sizes and identities, to be sure. But in terms of trends, it was impossible not to notice the increased central presence of women in the festival's films, both on the screen and behind the scenes. Of the three Fox Searchlight releases, all three are centered primarily on women (with fantastic performances in each, by Sally Hawkins, Emma Stone and Frances McDormand), and on Lady Bird, Gerwig is the whole show behind the camera just as greater-every-year Saoirse Ronan is in front of it.

By and large, the films with dominant female roles this year tended to focus on women who took daring leaps to change the circumstances of their lives; they took big risks with, unsurprisingly, varying results. This was certainly true of the resourceful women in Shape of Water, Battle of the Sexes and Three Billboards, as well as for the teenager in Lady Bird. But it was also the case for the two characters played by Jessica Chastain that were seen in Toronto this year: the brilliant skier who, her Olympic dreams dashed by injury, takes charge of the highest-stakes illegal poker games in Los Angeles and then New York, in Aaron Sorkin's madly talky and engaging Molly's Game; and the wealthy widow who, in Susanna White's more modest and uneven Woman Walks Ahead, ventures to the distant West in the late 1880s to paint the portrait of Lakota leader Sitting Bull.

If anyone programmed double-bills anymore, it would be amusing to pair Battle of the Sexes, which centers on the multi-barrier-busting career of tennis great Billie Jean King, and I, Tonya, about the perhaps less worthy role model for young women drawn to high-level sports competition, played here by Margot Robbie (staking a claim for herself outside tentpole genres).

Another noteworthy performance came from transgender actress Daniela Vega, playing a trans woman whose degradations at the hands of the family of her boyfriend after the latter's death in Chilean director Sebastian Lelio's only minimally fantastic A Fantastic Woman perhaps took the cake in terms of high-temperature melodrama. Well, on second thought, perhaps Jennifer Lawrence had rather more to endure in Darren Aronofsky's self-consciously provocative, nonetheless brain-popping mother!

The other thread connecting a number of films at Toronto this year was the attempt on the part of otherwise widely diverse writers and directors to reposition and reinterpret certain moments in mostly recent history.

Probably most prominent among these were director John Curran and writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan's Chappaquiddick, the first feature on the subject of the highly troubling 1969 incident in which Sen. Ted Kennedy survived a car accident that killed (by drowning) his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne. The film casts a commendably jaundiced eye on Kennedy's behavior throughout the incident and suggests that the family was all but immune from the law, but it's a surprisingly low-impact affair.

Made to mark the centenary of the event it depicts, Saul Dibb's new take on R.C. Sherrif's 1928 play Journey's End, about a fateful moment in trench warfare during World War I, more than anything reveals how utterly different warfare was 100 years ago — and, even more, obliges one to compare the polite and tremendously class-conscious nature of the soldiers' behavior toward one another with the far more brutish and vulgar way the military is painted today.

Robert Schwentke's black-and-white drama The Captain centers on the astounding behavior of a deserter from the German army during the final two weeks of World War II in Europe and, in a deliberately exaggerated way, stresses how common soldiers, and not just committed Nazis, could be infected by the impulse to massacre virtually on a whim; in other words, you didn't necessarily have to have been a blind follower of Hitler to behave like one.

And then there was the long-awaited latest film by highbrow critics' favorite Lucretia Martel (La Cienaga, The Holy Girl). Praised by the usual suspects in Venice, Zama centers a loyal civil servant of the Spanish crown in 18th century Latin America who, during his long and, as it turns out, endless wait to be reassigned to a more favorable posting, slowly goes mad. Some of it is striking and long stretches, especially midway, are perplexing and/or boring. But even to this non-fan of the director, the final act is full of borderline hallucinatory fascinations, piercing evocations of a man losing his bearings, striking visions of bizarre people and places you've never seen before and some perceptions of foreignness worthy of Werner Herzog. One could say that the destination is worth the arduous trip.

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