Since their son Ronnie died 5 years ago on prom night, Charlene (Amy Ryan) and Richard (Greg Kinnear) have grieved differently, and separated. Charlene and her younger son Philip (Nick Robinson) still live at home and are surprised one day to find Ronnie’s girlfriend Melissa (Margaret Qualley) on their doorstep and even more surprised to hear her news. She’s pregnant. With Ronnie’s child. Yes, Ronnie who died five years ago. He’s the only boy she was ever with.
Charlene and Philip remain skeptical despite Melissa’s “proof,” ie, a recording of a psychic reading that confirmed it. Melissa’s been distraught ever since she lost her boyfriend, and has been obsessed with his death. Her parents have thrown her out because of her interest in mysticism so she lives with a sweet elderly couple, Bill (Brian Cox) and Gail (Blythe Danner), who have all but adopted her. But Bill’s health is questionable, and while Gail worries about him, we worry that Bill and Gail may not always be around to care for Melissa or her baby on the way. Meanwhile, Melissa isn’t totally healthy herself. She’s had blackouts recently and needs to take care of herself and the baby that’s growing in her belly. Shaken, Charlene has been researching furiously, but rather than learn anything useful about frozen sperm, but learns that her ex-husband Richard has been secretly been paying Melissa’s rent at Bill and Gail’s. Philip’s also holding on to his own secrets; there are so many threads to entangle that Charlene won’t be able to keep up, and frankly, neither will we.
Turns out, dead baby daddies were the least of our worries. Rowan Athale’s thriller isn’t thrilling in the traditional sense, but it did surprise and horrify me, and I did find it compelling and interesting. It’s a great cast, a little wasted, who take us to places far scarier than merely the supernatural. The film is indeed quite strange, unapologetically so, and while it is not and never was true, it is a pretty decent watch.
On the one hand, rain makes you feel a little less guilty about spending the last few days of summer sequestered in movie theatres. On the other hand, there’s the standing in long lineups outside the movie theatres getting icy cold rain down your back, and the dampness in your shirt never dries in the movie theatre air conditioning. So you spend the whole day with a case of the shivers. But you also get to meet really cool people – a gentleman outside the Scotiabank theatre who sheltered me with his umbrella (while occasionally sending a big dump of sub-zero rain down my cleavage, but the intentions were good), an older woman I dubbed the blue angel for her raincoat who insisted I take her umbrella while waiting outside Bloor Hot Docs in the very early morning.Toronto festival goers are nothing if not courteous.
Miss You Already: This was the earliest I’ve ever been up for a movie, so if it was anything less than I was hoping, I would have been pissed. And the thing is, my expectations were tempered. It was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who did Thirteen, but also Twilight. It stars Drew Barrymore, one of my favourite celebrities, and Toni Collette, one of my favourite actresses. Note the difference. Drew Barrymore does best when just allowed to do her bubbly self, and in this case she’s well-cast and well-used. She and Collette play lifelong BFFs who have their friendship tested when Barrymore finally gets her innermost wishes granted with a long-awaited pregnancy and Collette has her innermost fears realized with a cancer diagnosis that means she is possibly dying, her children soon to be motherless. Collette is an amazing actor, capable of anything, and she handles this material with exactly the aplomb you’d expect. But this isn’t a movie likely to make the Oscar circuit. It’s meant to be crowd-pleasing, in a ten-pack of tissues sort of way. And it is. It’s a solid commentary on women and friendship, and what it means to be there for someone through thick and thin.
Maggie’s Plan: Greta Gerwig is the Diane Keaton of her generation. She’s kind of amazing in this neurotic, bohemian way. In this, she plays a young woman who is ready to have a baby, no matter what her best friend (and former lover) Bill Hader thinks. Of course, the minute she makes her move, she meets a man and falls in love. He’s married? So what! You can’t let a stale marriage come between you and your true love – so the marriage between Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore must crumble. Julianne Moore, by the way, is pretty much my favourite in everything lately. I will see her in two movies on this day at TIFF and can’t imagine two more different roles if I tried. Here she’s playing this European shrew with a wildly entertaining accent and immeasurable emotional peaks and valleys. I obviously hoped that this would be a good movie but was still pleased at how funny it was. And clever-funny too, which is always a relief. Kudos to another capable female director, Rebecca Miller. So thrilled to have seen so many talented women at this festival!
Closet Monster: Matt saw a talented young Canadian actor at TIFF several years ago in a movie called Blackbird. He knew that Connor Jessup was someone to watch out for, and he has. When he was announced to be starring in Stephen Dunn’s feature debut, Closet Monster, he was sold, and he sold us on it too. Thank you, Matt, for that. Stephen Dunn directs a highly personal film about a young man “coming of age” (good lord I hate that expression) in small and small-minded Maritime town. As a kid, Oscar witnesses a brutal hate crime that leads to internatlized homophobia. His teenaged coming out, and coming to terms, are therefore traumatic. Dunn creates a stylized world of escape for his protagonist, with just a hint of “magical surrealism” to help the bitter medicine go down. It’s a beautiful debut and we were all glad to have been part of it.
Freeheld: An embarrassingly short time ago, as in earlier this century, two women met and fell in love, and when one got sick, the other was going to be left holding an empty bag because domestic partnerships still weren’t really respected in their backwards-thinking country, and her partner’s benefits couldn’t legally be inherited by her. This true story, belonging to Laurel Hester and her widow Stacie Andree, is brought to the big screen with heaping sensitivity. You couldn’t ask for more from Julianne Moore or Ellen Page, who play the two lovers. Michael Shannon, as Hester’s partner, does a bang up job as the guy with a lot to learn. He’s a placeholder for the audience: we experience their story through his eyes. Sean and I saw Michael Shannon on Broadway a few years back (in an intense play along with Paul Rudd and Ed Asner, believe it or not) and we’ve watched him with greater interest ever since. Steve Carrell pops up in the movie too – you may have noticed him in the trailers for this movie, as he’s the clown through which we achieve some catharsis. He plays a “big gay Jew” who basically manipulates a sick woman into stumping for his cause – gay marriage. And causes like that do need a face to make them real to people, but I couldn’t help but sympathize with Andree, who must have just wanted to spend that time with her dying spouse. It’s of course an emotional movie (Kleenex sponsored the premiere, and handed out tissues as we went in). It’s a good but not great movie – but it IS a great story, and I’m so glad it’s been respectfully told. And seeing it with real-life counterparts, including Stacie Andree herself in attendance was something that I will never forget.
Wow, Julianne Moore and cancer both featured heavily in this day’s viewings!
Finally, Matt took on Missing Girl, which you may be intrigued to know, or mystified to learn, that Matt describes as a “charming comedy about a missing persons case.” It’s not every day you hear that one.
The world premiere of Closet Monster, which screened on Sunday as part of TIFF’s Discovery program, was a heart-wrenching experience and I don’t just mean the film itself. Director Stephen Dunn wept openly when asked whether his first feature film was auto-biographical in any way and recounted the story of a hate crime that happened in the Newfoundland town that he grew up in and the fear of his own sexuality that it instilled in him.
Described by the TIFF website as “a coming-of-age (and out-of-the-closet) story”, this small Canadian drama is as much about living with trauma as it is about coming out. Oscar (Connor Jessup) witnessed a brutal hate crime growing up similar to the one described by Dunn and the memory has haunted him ever since. As he is terrified to discover that he himself may be gay, every sexual impulse triggers graphic flashbacks of the incident. His crisis comes to a head when a cute male Montrealer shows up in town for the summer.
Closet Monster is not a perfect film. Most of the problems seem to come from Dunn’s inexperience as a feature filmmaker. A plot device involving a talking hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) is needlessly bizarre and goes nowhere. I found this easy to forgive though given the director’s obvious passion for the project. I got the sense that making even a single cut from material that he was so close to would wound him deeply.
There’s plenty to admire. Oscar’s anxiety about being true to himself is beautifully depicted, both through conventional drama and surreal fantasy sequences. And Jessup, who impressed me at the Festival three years ago in another small Canadian film called Blackbird, continues to be a young actor to watch out for.
Closet Monster isn’t always easy to watch but it is mostly very effective and moving and, if you’re up for it, I hope you’ll seek it out.