Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Werewelves Within

Forest Ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) has literally just arrived in the small town of Beaverfield and meets fellow new-comer, postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub). Together these outsiders navigate the quirky characters populating the town and bond over a shared love of the outdoors. They’ve arrived at a strange time for Beaverfield; the town is divided by a proposed gas pipeline. Tale as old as time (ish): pipeline will bring in cash, but also rape the land and whatnot. What to do, what to do? Lucky for them a representative of the gas company is staying at the town’s local inn so he can offer up totally impartial advice at a moment’s notice. Finn and Cecily are staying there too. In fact, pretty much the whole town will soon be staying there as a thick snowfall leaves them storm-fucked and snowed in.

As mentioned, the townsfolk are pretty uniformly weird, and the pipeline argument has caused a lifetime’s worth of pettiness and suspicion and resentment to resurface, leaving them at each other’s throats. But the morning after the storm gives them sometimes even more pressing to disagree about: something, some creature perhaps, is terrorizing their small community.

The town’s generators have been taken out and torn up one by one. A small dog goes missing, presumed eaten. A dead body turns up, frozen pretty much right under their noses, and then someone’s hand gets chomped off. Everyone’s a suspect, everyone’s sharing very tight quarters, everyone’s super high strung…and oh yeah, there’s no getting in or out of the town. Have at it!

This is a comedy-horror hybrid, and apparently a video game adaptation (though take it from me: you do NOT have to be familiar with the source material whatsoever to enjoy the film). This film is as advertised: scary and funny, and surprisingly enjoyable. Sam Richardson is my jam and I’m inclined to love anything he’s in. As Finn, he gets to deploy his aw-shucks brand of charm, practically an over grown boy scout who’s impossible to resist. He takes ownership here, leading the cast in their quest to suss out whatever creature’s stalking them. Happily, the rest of the cast (including Cheyenne Jackson, George Basil, Sarah Burns, Michaela Watkins, Catherine Curtin, and Michael Chernus) is in on the fun, everyone adding their own unique ingredients to make a pretty strange brew. It’s the kind of ridiculous that’s easy to laugh at and easy to forgive if (when) it doesn’t quite make sense.

Out of Sync

This humble little film from Spain may seem like an odd choice among TIFF’s more prominent titles, but after reading its synopsis, I knew I had to see it, knew I’d never seen anything like it.

C. (Marta Nieto) is a workaholic, hiding from life’s disappointments inside her dark studio where she works as a sound designer.

[A brief note about sound design because I’m a movie nerd and I can’t help myself. A sound designer is in charge of creating all the little (and big!) noises you hear in a movie. Clicking a pen, shuffling papers, ramming an armored truck into a brick wall at high speed – even out of this world stuff like a duplicitous jellied orb beaming down from the night sky – the sound designer has to place those sounds in a movie (or a show, a play, a video game, a slot machine, a children’s game, or an electric car). They comb through a database of previously recorded sounds looking for the perfect one(s), or they record it themselves. A particularly crisp stalk of celery may stand in for the snap of a human bone, and then that recording will be manipulated until it sounds both realistic and totally gross. That’s sound design!]

So C. is a sound designer, and a good one, sought after and respected, but lately her projects are getting returned, her clients unsatisfied. C. is suffering from auditory neuropathy, a totally real condition in which her hearing is simply out of sync. Her ear detects noise but doesn’t immediately report it to her brain. She’ll clap her hands, but won’t hear that clap right away. At first her hearing’s just a little off, just a fraction of a second, but as anyone who’s ever watched a movie where the dialogue and the lips don’t line up, that’s a very crucial fraction, and our brains itch and revolt when things don’t look right. But C.’s condition worsens, the delay increases to several seconds, then minutes. She’ll make herself a cup of tea and then be startled 7 minutes later when she finally hears the kettle whistling aggressively. Or she’ll answer the door to find no one there – whoever rang 18 minutes ago is long since gone. When what you see and what you hear don’t sync up, it’s not just a hearing problem, it feels like your whole brain is on fire. It must be exhausting to experience the world in this way, and it’s crippling to a person like C. who has built her whole career around the excellence of her ears.

Nieto is incredible here. C. is a loner by nature, and not prone to melodrama, so director Juanjo Giménez Peña virtually puts us into her shoes so we can experience her confusion, frustration, and loss along with her. C.’s path toward healing has her exploring her past, her childhood, her family roots. She unravels past mysteries and uncovers new skills, both of which prey on her sense of identity. It’s a fascinating movie with great character work and a premise that keeps unfolding in new and surprising ways. And did I mention the sound design (Marc Bech, Oriol Tarragó) is spectacular, as of course it must be in a movie like this, where all ears are perked up and playing extra close attention.

Out Of Sync is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Bingo Hell

Affectionately known in the neighbourhood of Oak Springs as ‘Gargoyle’ or ‘Granny,’ Lupita (Adriana Barraza) rules the community with a mostly benevolent first, with a few episodes of micro-vengeance against encroaching gentrification. She and her elderly posse, including Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell), who’s barely tolerating a pasty daughter-in-law, Morris (Clayton Landey), a Mr.-Fix-It who breaks more than he fixes, Clarence (Grover Coulson), the grumpy old man who runs the garage, and Yolanda (Bertila Damas), who runs the town’s failing beauty shop. This week’s community Bingo game is in her honour, raising funds to keep her doors open just a little longer.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I was drawn to this film due to its title. A bingo hall that’s more like bingo hell? Yeah, I can see that. And a couple of things have recently happened in Oak Springs that have shaken up Lupita’s usual game.

First, Mario, a widower normally part of Lupita’s crew, goes missing. It’s only been a day but he’s already missed by his community of elders, who find his absence immediately suspicious. Second, the old bingo hall disappears virtually overnight, bought out by some city slicker with money, who turns it into…another bingo hall. This one’s flashier and sexier and tempts people with extravagant jackpots. The people of Oak Springs can’t resist, but Lupita knows it’s bad news, especially the owner, who goes by Mr. Big (Richard Brake). As you might have guessed, and since this is a horror, Lupita is more or less right. Mr. Big trades in greed, and the price is steep. His bingo hall just might be the root of all evil.

I liked the title but I loved the movie. It’s rare for any movie to feature a cast of senior citizens, but it’s especially nice to see them headlining a horror. And these aren’t doddering old fools, these are vibrant, tough citizens, still fighting for their beloved neighbourhood, still fighting off evil incarnate as necessary. Someone’s got to do it!

Director Gigi Saul Guerrero writes a film, alongside Perry Blackshear and Shane McKenzie, that has clear roots in the genre, but with its fresh perspective and unexpected vigor, Bingo Hell is silly, smart, sassy, and scary. The cast of golden agers is uniformly and impressively strong, and Guerrero directs them by virtue of their age, not despite it, finding power and skill in what others may consider limitations. Guerrero’s greatest asset is Barraza, and she knows it, using her liberally, wisely, and in enchantingly subversive ways. If you’re lucky enough to find an Adriana, you definitely, definitely write a role for her. Barraza is plucky and hardy. When she wields a shotgun, you believe it. But she doesn’t confuse vulnerability with weakness. Lupita is stubborn and single-minded in her defense of her beloved community, but even she will find it difficult to save the souls of her squad when her friends are selling them willingly and enthusiastically. Will Mr. Big$ Bingo be the end of them all? Amazon Prime is where you shall find your answers, but beware: bingo is a game with one winner, and an awful lot of losers. Watch if you dare.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

People will tell you that The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a manic mess of quirks and cameos, and I won’t deny it. In fact, I embrace it. I liked it that way.

Every year, Hollywood greenlights a certain number of biopics, biopics being fairly reliable around Oscar time. But they’ve been making moving pictures for more than a century; at some point, we’re going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for suitable subjects. I know some critics have argued that Louis Wain isn’t exactly first-rate material, and I’ll confess to not knowing his name or his art before watching this film. Now, however, I’d consider myself a fan. I can see why director Will Sharpe would choose him: Louis Wain was a complete weirdo. Today we’d have a much more sophisticated label for him, but the Victoria set just thought him strange and unusual, and he was happily oblivious to exist outside of society’s expectations.

When we meet Louis in 1881, he’s the head of the family to aging and ailing mother and 5 unmarried sisters. He’s not exactly up for the task, or even aware of it, more concerned with creative pursuits, which of course pay diddly squat, which doesn’t exactly address the family’s growing financial concerns. Wain’s peculiarities keep him so far outside of the natural order of things, everyone’s shocked to discover he’s actually a romantic. And in fact, he’s fallen in love with his sisters’ governess, Emily (Claire Foy). While it’s shocking that Louis is suddenly going to marry, it’s even more shocking that he’s chosen such an inappropriate bride. She’s not only the help, she’s also a spinster at her advanced age. The scandal! Louis’s mother is mortified. But he marries her anyway, and insists that the family treats her well.

Such a beautiful, whirlwind romance can only end one way: she dies. She dies young, leaving Louis a weird, bereft loner who only has the heart to do one thing. Draw cat pictures. He would draw his wife pictures of their beloved cat to cheer her up as the cancer took her, and now he keeps doing it, illustrating obsessively, becoming famous for his cat cartoons, but never rich. Louis never did have a head for business.

He did, however, have a head full of wild and fantastical thoughts, and the film treats him like an avant-garde genius. This is the stuff that creams Cumberbatch’s knickers. He’s the King of Quirk, and he lays it on thick, but I never felt it was over the top or distracting; it was wonderful. It was Cumber at his Batchiest, all ticks, and odd mannerisms, and social ineptitude. He’s not serving up mere ice cream, he’s the whole damn sundae bar, and who doesn’t live for ‘more is more’ at a sundae bar? Cumberbatch does, and I’m here for it.

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Yes, this makes for some wild shifts in film, tonalities that spasm all over the screen, but it feels like an extension of the character, never quite managing to follow the rules, never caring to either. Wain had plenty of darkness in him too, a true artist even in his soul, which a droll voiceover by Olivia Colman drives home, literally giving voice to his damaged inner life, his unbearable grief, his tattered mental state.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is flawed, but it’s also spectacular, especially as a fan of the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch. Louis Wain didn’t live inside the box he was meant to. He felt life sizzle all around him. He wasn’t typical, or perhaps even neurotypical, but he dreamed big, loved big, lost big, grieved big, and left a legacy that includes a great many cat pictures, but more besides, something intangible that couldn’t possibly be captured on film but between Cumberbatch and Sharpe, is made somehow real.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is an official selection of TIFF 2021. Look for it on Amazon Prime November 5.

The Humans

There were bigger films at TIFF this year, buzzier films, films with hype and hope and high expectations. The Humans, though? That one was for me. An intense, talky film, character-driven, with an interesting cast: sign me up and sit me down! Stephen Karam adapts his one-act play (finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony winner for Best Play) for the big screen, a risky DIY move that pays off in surprising ways.

The Humans takes place in Brigid and Richard’s new apartment, “new” being a misleading word in this case as it’s a crumbling pre-war duplex in downtown Manhattan, but it’s new to Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), who are moving in together for the first time, and playing host to her family for Thanksgiving. Just one problem: the furniture hasn’t even arrived yet. Haha, just kidding. In-laws for Thanksgiving? There’s gonna be drama, folks.

But not the loud, yelly kind. Sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) arrives first, from Philadelphia, mourning her recent breakup and dealing with an intestinal rebellion. Mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and dad Erik (Richard Jenkins) arrive next, in from Scranton, toting grandma ‘Momo’ (June Squibb), physically confined to a wheelchair and mentally confined by Alzheimer’s. With an apartment full of people instead of furniture, the holiday celebrations begin, but I’m afraid you won’t find them very jolly.

The passive-aggression starts almost immediately. There’s no one quite like family for such precision the button-pushing, and nary a scene goes by without adding to the tensions of the night. Everyone’s got a secret, and as if the house knows, it starts to bump and burble around them. As darkness falls, the apartment closes in, feeling all the more claustrophobic as director Karam finds nooks and crannies to hide his camera and catch his subject in awkward positions. Aimee hides a trembling lip, and makes unadvised calls from the bathroom. Dad Erik eyes the apartment’s many flaws, distress flashing across his features, tongue firmly bitten. He sees every loose doorknob, every bubble in the paint, every single water damage stain dotting the ceilings. Is he evaluating the apartment’s worthiness, or lamenting that he can’t provide better for his daughter? With a panic attack always encroaching, he’s a tough character to crack, but Richard Jenkins is second to none, and he’s rarely, if ever, been better than this.

Intimate and meticulously observed, Karam has an ear for dialogue and a knack for finding the authenticity in human interaction. Completely free of artifice, this feels like an absurdly typical American family fumbling their way through another holiday dinner. They love each other and they drive each crazy.

Houdyshell, having originated the role of Deirdre on Broadway, plays her like a second skin, so comfortable in the role she wins our empathy with the very smallest of hints, her anguish just barely visible yet undeniable, her every flinch present and accounted for. Feldstein and Yeun are each as good as we’d expect them to be, flawless parts of a flawless whole. Schumer’s the real surprise, holding her own alongside them, Aimee’s role within the family instantly identifiable and relatable.

The Humans gets to the truth in this family dynamic, eschewing melodrama for raw honesty, leaving the members of this family open and exposed. They are laid so bare it feels almost embarrassing to be eavesdropping, yet it’s so compelling it hurts to look away. Karam is confident enough in his material not to muck it up with cinematic tricks. He relies on strong writing and excellent acting, and both here are beyond reproach. He holds a mirror up to us, and like all humans before and after us, we are fascinated by our reflections. Our very natures, the best and worst of us, revealed in one turkey dinner around a rickety folding table with mismatched chairs, Momo snoring softly from the corner. A compelling story is more than enough.

I loved every bit of this movie, how it moved me, how I felt I knew and understood these characters instinctively, winced when they winced, held my breath when they held theirs. The Humans is among the best of the many excellently curated titles at TIFF this year, and how I wished I was watching it with others, able to debate the merits of its title, the meaning of those blackened lightbulbs, Karam’s creepy, haunted atmosphere, treating this family drama as if it were a horror – and whether, just maybe, it is.

The film will simultaneously be released in theaters and aired on Showtime on November 24, 2021.

Everyone’s Talking About Jamie

This movie is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell, a 16 year old boy from Sheffield, England, who dreamed in drag, and attended prom in a dress.

In the film, the 16 year old boy is called Jamie New (Max Harwood). Jamie is out, and proud, and knows in his blood he’s meant to be a drag queen. He’s bullied at school, rejected by his father, but at home he finds support with mother Margaret (Sarah Lancashire), who doesn’t just love and accept him, but encourages him to be his true self. She even buys him his first pair of heels.

Worried the film wouldn’t be gay enough, directors Jonathan Butterell, Dan Gillespie Sells, and Tom MacRae add singing and dancing, adapting it from the West-End stage musical.

Stifled at school, especially by Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), Jamie resolves to attend prom in a dress. Emboldened to finally create the drag persona of whom he’s been dreaming, he makes a friend with crucial experience. Hugo (Richard E. Grant) doesn’t just run a fabulous dress shop, he’s a queen himself, and his wisdom extends beyond just brows and breasts. He teaches Jamie (with an all-new song) about drag’s revolutionary history.

Grant prepared for the role by binging 11 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race in just 3 weeks (which sounds like a dream job to me), and is particularly fitting since season 6’s winner, Bianca Del Rio (Roy Haylock), makes a cameo appearance (as do the real Jamie Campbell, and several cast members of the stage musical).

If you like heart warming stories about being your true self, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie is about to be talked about you, too. If you like queer stories with a happy ending, please sing and dance along. If you like stories about outsiders overcoming obstacles to rise above, then find this film on Amazon Prime, sparkly heels optional but encouraged.

Nobody Has To Know

Phil arrives home in a cab, a home he no longer recognizes as his own. He’s been in hospital, had a stroke, lost his memory. He doesn’t know where home is or who he is, but luckily Millie knocks on his door the next day to remind him. She’s his boss’s daughter. She brings him to work, shows him around, lists his likes and dislikes, and informs him they were (are) secret lovers. Their chemistry is undeniable, his hands seem accustomed to the work, his mattress conforms to his body, yet there’s a dog he can’t account for, and his memory remains slow to return.

Furthermore, Phil (writer-director Bouli Lanners) is a foreigner, a Belgian farmhand working on a remote Scottish island. Why is he so far from home? Why isn’t his family looking for him? His strangeness makes him seem more vulnerable, a crack in his gruff exterior. Millie (Michelle Fairley) enjoys a prominent seat in the island’s social hierarchy but is shy and reserved. They make a complementary pair as they navigate the losses due to his amnesia, and the minefield of memory as it returns. The real secret waiting to be unlocked isn’t that they were lovers, but that they never were. Millie has simply taken advantage of this unique situation to make something happen that neither had the courage to do beforehand.

Their relationship, and his footing in the community, becomes a story of identity. Who Phil is depends on who he’s with, who that person perceives him to be, wishes him to be, which side of himself he revealed to them, what they remember, what they value, what they project onto him. It’s like he’s a slightly different person to everyone he encounters, which makes assimilating his personality a difficult task. Without memory, we rely on other people’s stories to make sense of who we are. The stories Phil is told about himself vary, and some are flat-out made up. Who is he deep inside, regardless of these stories? Time would tell, if only Phil had much of it.

Nobody Has to Know is a small and gentle film that took me by surprise. It’s tender and beautiful to behold, well-acted, well-told, well-considered. Although it must be terrifying to depend on others to learn about oneself, director Lanners acknowledges that a beautiful Scottish backdrop always makes things better. The island’s remoteness gives us a sense of Phil’s isolation, his urge to hide, but also his his appreciation for beauty. You’ll find yourself wondering just how well you would fare should you wake up tomorrow in a room you don’t recognize, in a home that feels alien. How to re-assemble your ‘self’? Where to find the truth, who to trust to tell it, how to treat the things that don’t feel authentic. And let’s not forget that Phil is also in the throes of romance, either one rekindled or ignited for the first time, but either way mired in history and context that he doesn’t know. If your hands and mouth and heart say yes, is that enough, or should you wait for your brain to catch up?

Watch Phil pick up the pieces in this quiet and gentle film; Nobody Has to Know premiered at TIFF and heads to the Chicago Film Festival October 15 before its December release.

Lakewood

Some movies come out of TIFF as clear front-runners for this year’s Best Picture race at the Oscars (Belfast, The Power of the Dog), but others may stick with you for other reasons entirely. Lakewood is one of two movies I just can’t stop thinking about this year (Silent Night is the other, if you’re wondering).

Amy Carr (Naomi Watts), bereaved widow and mother of two, puts her young daughter Emily on the bus to school, tries unsuccessfully to rouse teenage son Noah, and then hits the trail for a beautiful autumnal run. It’s supposed to be self care, only Amy doesn’t dare disconnect, fielding calls from work, from mum, from the mechanic, and that’s before her whole world shifts.

Amy learns her daughter’s school is on lockdown. In fact, the whole town, small as it is, is pretty much on lockdown to do an active school shooter situation: a parent’s worst nightmare. Amy is miles from home, and as her worst fears play across her face as she struggles to catch her breath, realizing only her cellphone connects her to breaking news, both good and bad. The shooting is not at her daughter’s school. Emily is shaken, but safe. The shooting is at Noah’s school, but luckily Noah is still home in bed, or so Amy thought. The one time her teenage son listens to her and it’s to go to school on this day, the very worst day of days. Frantic calls to anyone who can help. Pleas for people step up. Pleas to the universe to keep her son safe. Frequent checks with Google Maps to try to navigate her way into town. Obsessive calls to her son, who never answers. Reaching out to friends, family, the mechanic, a 911 operator, the detective already on the case.

This is Naomi Watts’ show. Her hope, her anguish, her desperation. She is every emotion, a spectrum of feelings, cycling rapidly, overlapping constantly, reacting to the changing circumstances like an emotion chameleon. Fear. FEAR. Gripping, panicky fear. Fear that maxes out, subsumes everything, yet still finds room to grow when Amy learns consideration for her son have shifted from potential victim to potential perpetrator. Devastated, her urgency doesn’t relent. Still determined to reach him at any cost, Amy’s beleaguered journey forward is further complicated by flashbacks: her son being bullied, her son’s growing detachment, her son mourning for his father.

The gun in their home.

This role is every actress’s dream, requiring every tool in the toolbox, a chance to showcase talent and skill. It takes confidence to pull off; reaching such a vulnerable place also highlights flaws. Only the very best could properly execute it, and fortunately for us, Watts is among the very best. She doesn’t just pull it off, she plays it with considered subtlety. Melodrama is easier, hard to resist, even harder to avoid, but Watts finds the truth of her character: a mother gets shit done. She’ll fall apart later. Right now, for these 90 minutes, her son needs her, and nothing is going to stop her getting to him.

Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People

Welcome to the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival, a festival which always includes an eclectic lineup of fantastic animated movies, movies that will likely challenge your notion of what an animated movie can be. Most are not kid-friendly. There are no Disney princesses here (though we have seen the folks from Pixar attend, give great talks about their creative process, and host a hiring booth at the career fair). You’re more likely to see something about the war, or Alzheimer’s, or an esoteric exploration of the meaninglessness of life. Although not always dark, these movies are likely to leave you with something meaningful to chew on. So what better way for us to start this year’s festival than with Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People, a meta, self-referential claymation about a popular comic book, and its creator.

Director Cesar Cabral interviews popular Brazilian cartoonist Angeli, who bemoans his current writer’s block, and his evolving style, feeling like he’s no longer the artist he once was, or that others would recognize. The interview is of courses stop-motion animated, there’s nothing live action to see here. Angeli decides to overcome his block by killing his most famous character, Bob Spit, an aging, angry, misanthropic punk.

We deep-dive into Angeli’s head, where character Bob Spit lives in a post-apocalyptic desert with mutant cutesie pop stars who want him dead. A couple of his old followers help him confront his creator (Angeli himself) to make a plea before it’s too late.

Part documentary and part comic book adaptation, where both get equal treatment in clay, Cabral makes an interesting connection between the artist and the art he creates. The relationship is clear; the delineation is not. Bob Spit is Angeli’s most autobiographical character, a character Angeli is now determined to kill off.

This film defies expectation, defies label, defies genre, defies logic. It is, however, eminently watchable. Bob Spit, caught off guard on the toilet by a bunch of homicidal pop stars, picks them off one by one with his trusty shotgun. His pants around his ankles (full-frontal claymation!), the popstars burst with a riot of glitter in place of blood. The Bob Spit universe inside Angeli’s head is a marvel. Angeli himself is a mystery, but it sure is fun to live in his world for a bit. This film needs to be seen to be believed and lucky for you, it’s screening online at the festival right now.

Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People is an official selection of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

The Wheel

Albee and Walker met as children growing up in foster care. They married at age 16 to escape a terrible situation, and now, 7 years later, they’re on the verge of divorce. Albee (Amber Midthunder) has all but checked out, but agreed to spend one last weekend away to work through a marriage workbook and see what can be salvaged. Walker (Taylor Gray) hopes their relationship can be saved, but Albee isn’t even sure they ever loved each other so much as needed each other to build more stable lives. They’re committed to brutal honesty this weekend, but neither is really prepared to hear it.

Meanwhile, the couple who run the B&B where Albee and Walker are staying are having problems by osmosis. Planning to wed in just a couple of weeks, Ben (Nelson Lee) and Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) are tip-toeing around the their unstable guests, trying to avoid the awkwardness of witnessing a marriage disintegrate in their guest house. But as Albee and Walker tackle the issues suggested in the book, it begins to reveal cracks in Ben and Carly’s relationship as well. This weekend is going to be very hard on love.

Midthunder plays cruel and bitchy exceedingly well, her only displays of affection reserved for her phone. Gray is adorable like a kitten; it’s inconceivable that anyone should abandon him. It makes for an uncomfortable balance. Lind adds an interesting extra dimension to some already complicated dynamics. Love is hard. Love is very hard. Are any of these couples willing to do the work?

The Wheel is a wonderful little indie that I found quite charming, exceeding my expectations in the best possible way.

The Wheel is an official selection of TIFF 2021.