Toronto: The #MeToo Reckoning Comes to the Big Screen

'Instinct' Film Still — Publicity — H 2019
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

While it remains to be seen if projects examining sexual politics in the post-Weinstein era can connect with audiences or buyers, insiders say the time is right.

Call it the latest example of art imitating life.

Nearly two years after the epic fall of Harvey Weinstein and the dawn of Hollywood’s #MeToo era, the first wave of films reflecting that new sensibility is hitting the screen. And this year's Toronto festival and market is chock-full of interpretations of sexual harassment and assault. All are directed by women.

Among the films that touch on themes that now dominate the conversation are Halina Reijn's Instinct (which centers on a female psychologist who falls for a patient with a history of violent sexual assault) and Kitty Green's The Assistant (a thinly veiled take on a day in the life of a Weinstein underling). The latter made its world premiere at Telluride and is being sold by 3311 Productions in Toronto. The former, which will likely become one of the most controversial of the Toronto fest given that its protagonist — Game of Thrones' Carice van Houten — fantasizes about sex with a brutal rapist, will make its North American premiere Saturday.

"I think the film is exploring the question: Are we intellectual, civilized beings or are we also still animals?" Reijn says. "I think one of the most important assignments that we should give ourselves as creators is that we should all cherish nuance and dare to go to uncomfortable places." 

The Assistant producer James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain) began shopping the script at Toronto in 2018 and quickly assembled deep-pocketed investors to make the film. (Outspoken Disney critic Abigail Disney is one of the film's backers.)

"All of us who have worked in this system have a lot to answer for," says Schamus, who ran Focus Features when Weinstein was in charge of his titular company. "And Kitty provides, with the help of Julia Garner's universally praised performance, an occasion to begin those necessary conversations — by centering on those who for all too long were ignored and unseen."

Other Toronto titles that tackle #MeToo and Time's Up themes include Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers (which flips the script on the suffering stripper), Unjoo Moon's I Am Woman (a biopic about Helen Reddy, the Australian singer behind the 1971 eponymous anthem that became the rallying cry of the women's liberation movement) and Eva Orner's Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (a documentary that tracks the rise and fall of hot-yoga pioneer Bikram Choudhury through first-person interviews with women who accuse the guru of rape and sexual harassment. Choudhury has never been prosecuted and continues to amass a new generation of followers).

"After raping and abusing multiple women who went to the police, who got lawyers, he got away with it," Orner says. "This story is a really big warning about how easy it is for powerful men to get away with these kinds of crimes."

But will top acquisition executives — nearly all of them men and many who worked under Weinstein at some point in their careers — have an appetite for fare that hits close to home? Netflix already has acquired Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. And a source says that a deal for The Assistant is imminent. One active buyer told THR that he is particularly intrigued by how Reijn pulls off Instinct's politically incorrect and erotic narrative, which is inspired by a true story.

"These films are definitely going to make some people squirm," says another buyer. "But I see that as a good thing. They will spark dialogue."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 7 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.