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Toronto International Film Festival 2018 - UPDATE #3

The Grizzlies
Directed by Miranda de Pencier

Inspired by true events, The Grizzlies follows fledgling teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) as he accepts a job within a remote Arctic community called Kugluktuk - with the character's efforts at connecting with his disaffected, suicidal students leading him to establish a lacrosse team. It's a familiar premise that is, at the outset, employed to agreeable effect by first-time filmmaker Miranda de Pencier, as The Grizzlies boasts a mostly engaging first half that's elevated by Schnetzer's impressively charismatic turn as the movie's central character. (There's little doubt, too, that de Pencier effectively elicits strong work from her cast of young performers.) Scripters Graham Yost and Moira Walley-Beckett deliver a somewhat erratic narrative that doesn't, at least, shy away from the more grim aspects of life within Kugluktuk, and yet it's equally apparent that the screenwriters' ongoing efforts at balancing the story's multitude of feel-good and gritty elements generally fall fairly flat. The Grizzlies consequently does start to demonstrably run out of steam as it passes the one-hour mark, and it's clear, ultimately, that the impact of the picture's climax is severely diminished by the progressively erratic atmosphere - which, despite an inherently compelling setup and a series of positive attributes, ensures that the film is finally unable to entirely justify its feature-length running time.

out of

The Kindergarten Teacher
Directed by Sara Colangelo

Based on a 2014 Israeli film, The Kindergarten Teacher follows Maggie Gyllenhaal's Lisa Spinelli as she begins to take an often disturbingly keen interest in a talented young student (Parker Sevak's Jimmy) - with the movie detailing Lisa's day-to-day exploits both at school and at home (where she’s trapped in a stale marriage and saddled with two utterly disinterested teenagers). Filmmaker Sara Colangelo delivers an exceedingly, sometimes excessively slow drama that benefits substantially from Gyllenhaal's commanding lead performance, as the actress certainly manages to infuse her character with an authentic, lived-in feel that remains a consistent highlight - and yet it’s clear, to a progressive degree, that The Kindergarten Teacher's lackadaisical vibe unfortunately tends to hold the viewer at arms length throughout. Colangelo's unapologetically subdued approach to her own screenplay undoubtedly plays a significant role in the picture’s middling atmosphere, as there’s just never a point at which one is able to wholeheartedly embrace the sometimes punishingly slow narrative. There’s little doubt, however, that the film does manage to paint a fairly evocative portrait of a deeply miserable middle-aged woman, and it’s clear, too, that the question of whether Lisa's interest in Jimmy is entirely self-serving or if she does care about him to a small degree keeps things interesting. And although the picture’s tense final stretch does explain and justify much of what precedes it, The Kindergarten Teacher has long-since confirmed its place as a thoroughly well-acted yet distressingly uninvolving little drama.

out of

The Quietude
Directed by Pablo Trapero

Directed by Pablo Trapero, The Quietude follows sisters Mia (Martina Gusman) and Eugenia (Bérénice Bejo) as they convene at their parents’ country estate after the patriarch falls ill - with the deliberately-paced narrative detailing the characters’ low-key exploits and their handling of the various secrets that inevitably come out. It’s a subdued, low-stakes setup that’s employed to almost passable yet rarely engrossing effect by Trapero, as The Quietude, for the most part, comes off as what feels like a short film that’s been awkwardly and ineffectually stretched out to feature length - with Trapero's screenplay boasting too few elements designed to capture and sustain the viewer’s interest. This is despite a decidedly lush visual sensibility and a series of top-notch performances, with, in terms of the latter, both Gusman and Bejo stepping into the shoes of their respective characters with an ease that’s often hypnotic. The movie’s almost total lack of momentum does become more and more problematic as time slowly progresses, though, and it’s clear, too, that the hands-off atmosphere is compounded by an absence of standout sequences. (The one fairly significant exception to this is a mid-picture, one-take scene set in and around a funeral, as the scene boasts a vitality and energy that’s otherwise mostly absent.) And although certain revelations in the movie’s climactic stretch threaten to turn things around, The Quietude has long-since confirmed its place as a well-made, well-acted bit of film festival tedium.

out of

Directed by Ali Abbasi

Based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Gräns follows border guard Tina (Eva Melander) as she uses a preternatural ability to literally sniff out deception to catch smugglers and criminals - with her steady yet dull routine upended after she meets and befriends a mysterious man named Vore (Eero Milonoff). It's certainly a unique premise that's employed to lamentably erratic effect by filmmaker Ali Abbasi, as the director has infused Gräns with a padded-out, excessively deliberate feel that is, one assumes, a consequence of the abbreviated source material - with the initial lack of an entry point for the viewer certainly compounding the hands-off atmosphere. It's equally clear, however, that the picture benefits substantially from Melander's hypnotic turn as the oddball central character, with the unusual relationship that ensues between Tina and Milonoff's Vore providing the movie with bursts of unexpected, off-the-wall happenings (eg their sex scene is certainly one for the ages). The inclusion of a decidedly surprising twist at around the one-hour mark ensures that Gräns is far from the placid drama about an outsider one might've initially expected, and although the narrative subsequently goes in some impressively dark directions, the film remains saddled with pacing issues that ultimately diminish its overall impact - with the end result an undeniably singular piece of work that could (and should) have been much better.

out of

The Other Story
Directed by Avi Nesher

From director Avi Nesher comes this wildly unfocused drama centered around a young woman (Joy Rieger's Anat) set to marry a deeply-religious musician, with the narrative following Anat's parents (Maya Dagan's Tali and Yuval Segal's Yonatan) as they attempt to surreptitiously put a stop to the impending nuptials. (There’s also a bizarre subplot detailing Yonatan's efforts at helping a struggling couple overcome their various problems, including and especially the wife’s newfound membership within a pagan cult!) It’s clear immediately that filmmaker Nesher isn’t looking to craft a subtle, low-key familial drama here, as The Other Story has been packed with elements of decidedly broad and melodramatic variety (ie the movie seems to consist of scene after scene of characters yelling and getting angry at one another) - and yet there’s little doubt that the film is, for a while, more entertaining than one might’ve anticipated, albeit in a trashy, nighttime soap kind of way. The picture’s all-over-the-place sensibilities eventually grow exhausting, however, and it’s not long before one begins to crave even a single scene of authentic substance - with the progressively uninvolving vibe compounding by a growing absence of momentum (ie the whole thing just meanders to a somewhat astonishing degree). It goes without saying that the resolution to the two diametrically-opposed storylines is as unsatisfying and anticlimactic as one might’ve feared, which ultimately cements The Other Story's place as a seriously oddball endeavor that never should’ve made it past the script stage.

out of

© David Nusair