Tag Archives: female directors

Ali & Ava

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) smiles his way through a troubled marriage. With good humour and loud music, he focuses on doing for others, including his tenants, with whom he has a remarkably amicable relationship. In fact, he’s picking up one of his tenants’ kids from from school when he meets Ava, an Irish teacher at the school. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a single mother of 5 (most of them grown, though not necessarily gone), and Ali offers her a ride. She’s tired but she smiles easily, and before they’re much down the road the pair are already bonding over their mutual love of music (though notably not the same music).

Writer-director Clio Barnard may refer to this as a working-class love story, but I’m fairly certain its protagonists would not. They are simply drawn to each other, irrepressibly so, despite their differing backgrounds and statuses and skin colour. They’re both living through tumultuous times and though it’s safe to say neither was looking for a romance, they are both open to finding joy in unexpected places. Not everyone is so open; Ava’s grown son is less than pleased to find a British Pakistani man cuddling his mam on the couch. He brandishes a sword and runs him straight out. So while the initial attraction may have been based on the need for fun and distraction, they quickly come across some pretty serious barriers and have to wonder whether all of this is worth it.

Barnard has drawn some exceptionally authentic characters, brought to life by a very talented pair of actors. Akhtar and Rushbrook live in these skins, they feel like your neighbours, you know them somehow, and you like them even as they falter. The complexity of their relationship allows for a whole spectrum of emotion, but Barnard applies it with a light touch, her actors keeping their performances as subtle as they are precise. There’s a lot to unpack here: grief, trauma, hate, disappointment, but through it all, there’s a buoyancy that keeps lighting their path. There is hope in vulnerability, and strength in pursuing unlikely connections.

Ali & Ava is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Medusa

This movie had me thinking of Handmaid’s Tale – of the women of Gilead, in particular. Many of these women, including Serena Waterford, helped create this new world order where women are completely sublimated, supposedly in the name of god, but actually for the strengthening of the patriarchy. As a commander’s wife, Serena enjoys the highest position a woman can achieve in Gilead, which is to say, no position at all. She is to stay at home, completely voiceless, caring for or attempting to have babies. Forgetting her position means harsh punishment, even the removal of body parts, to remind her of her place. So she lashes out in the way that she can, by abusing the little power she has over the servants in her house. Cooks and cleaners, called Marthas, are fair game, but the Handmaids (young women placed in the homes of high-ranking officials to be raped repeatedly until they bear them children are called ‘Handmaids’) take the brunt of the wives’ wrath. Aunts are the women in charge of training the Handmaids to do their duty and to remain submissive at all times; Aunt Lydia seems to relish the opportunity to cruelly punish the women who have trouble complying. I always wonder: are the Serenas and Lydias evil? Are they worse than the men who force them into these positions? Have they internalized misogyny or turned traitor on their own gender, or are they merely surviving in a world that pits woman against woman for scraps at best? Are they victims, or monsters, or something in between?

Medusa takes place in “today’s” Brazil, where many mourn the loss of “good” Christian values and have taken it upon themselves to right what they perceive to be wrong. Mariana is just 21 years old, but the pressure on her and her friends is already astronomical. They have to keep up pure and saintly appearances at all times while being relegated to the bottom rung due to their sex. They act out, not against their oppressors, but against their own gender, against other young women they deem deviant. Donning truly creepy masks, they stalk the night streets in a large and frightening gang, hunting down a slut or a sinner, beating her mercilessly, and forcing her to confess her sins as they record on their phones. Beauty and youth are of course the most important currency, but also somehow treated with suspicion. You can’t win, and the punishments are severe. And when Mariana and her friends start to realize this, that there aren’t but victims on either side of their transactions, the urge to rebel is even stronger.

Writer-director Anita Rocha da Silveira saw radical Christian factions popping up in Brazil and needed to write about it, bending reality with mythology, and creating something that feels all too possible. Policing women’s bodies and minds with such strict control inevitably leads to some boiling point, but Silveira tempers the dark with some light, some levity. By leaning in to the horror, she exposes the hypocrisy and highlights the rage. Once it’s unleashed, the real fun begins.

Freeland

Devi is a relic. She’s been cultivating legendary pot strains on her farm for decades, but those days are over. Marijuana is legal now, and growers have to be legit too. Devi (Krisha Fairchild) has been a black-market producer for so long she doesn’t know anything else. Her small outfit certainly doesn’t have the funds to be retrofitted to government standards. She’s getting hit with fines she can’t afford left and right, she’s begging her small contingent of transient pickers to accept deferred payment, she’s desperately trying to find a buyer for her product, she’s scrambling to keep her land, all while racing to bring in this harvest, which may be her last.

Freeland isn’t really a movie about the rapidly-changing cannabis industry, that’s just an interesting backdrop for an intimate character portrait. It’s not just Devi’s farm which has become obsolete, it’s her too, or at least that’s how she feels as she loses her grip on the market, her community, even the hired hands with whom she’s usually quite friendly. Her sense of paranoia and otherness grows until she loses control. Fairchild is of course a big reason why this works. Directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean trust her to do the work, to embody a formidable woman who will not go gently into that good night.

If her long gray hair a past dotted with orgies doesn’t convince you, maybe the mason jars of money buried around her property will: Devi’s a hippie, a holdover from a different time and place. But make no mistake, she’s not all peace and love. No stranger to a gun, Devi’s prepared to go down fighting, and Fairchild has us believing in her commitment so much we’re on the edge of our seats, equal parts fascinated and terrified to find out how this all ends.

Furloni and McLean allow Devi to be a multi-faceted protagonist, but if she’s not always likable, they do always spare her some empathy. This is an outsider’s story, a rare gem that makes excellent use of its elderly protagonist, who may be old, and may be down, but isn’t ready yet to count herself out.

** Debuts in select theatres October 15th **
On Demand everywhere November 19th

True Things

Kate

Kate (Ruth Wilson) is having another dreary day at the office, one in a string of many, making up the bulk of her dreary little life. But today is different. Sitting behind her desk as a benefit claims worker, Kate catches the eye of a claimant who looks like the kind of sexy bad news that could shake up her life. With dyed-blond hair and perpetual 5-o’clock shadow, this guy is easily identifiable as newly released from prison, and Ruth doesn’t need much more than that to fuel her fantasies. But before you know it, they’re going at it FOR REAL right there in the parking lot. It’s hot and frantic and leaves her breathless. Consider Kate obsessed.

Blond guy (Tom Burke) is cheeky and charming (when he wants to be), and handsome in that dangerous way, making for some pretty sexy fantasizing. But it’s not just the sex that invades her fantasies; soon she’s picturing marriage and children and mortgages, the whole kit and caboodle. Which, to be fair to Blond, is not at all what he’s promising. In fact, if you weren’t dick-matized by him, you’d probably clock him for Trouble with a capital T. Unfortunately for Kate, her life was had a bad boy-sized hole in her life. Blond fills it imperfectly, but it’s better than nothing, and Kate’s serious infatuation is more than capable of filling in seams. She’s so intoxicated that her everyday life starts to fall apart because she just can’t get her mind off him. And Blond guy plays her like a banjo, doling out his affection in smaller and smaller portions. Toxic men seem to understand intermittent reinforcement intuitively; rewarding someone all the time is good, but rewarding someone irregularly actually keeps them on the hook much longer, perpetuates that false hope for longer, keeps a woman sniffing after the wrong guy for far longer than she should.

Ruth Wilson’s been doing some noteworthy and varied work lately, and I would definitely rate this role among it. We likely all have a friend, and perhaps even a personal experience, of falling head over heels for someone we shouldn’t have. Kate is consumed, almost erased, by the strength of her desire. Director Harry Wootliff feels intimately familiar with the scenario as well, the sensual exploration, the hunger to not be alone, the dizzying highs, the unfathomable lows. Together they compose something that feels desperate and authentic, a classic story of self-destructive compulsion. Blond embodies the bad boy trope, oozing so much exaggerated sexuality that even a smart woman like Kate can’t resist, despite red flags like callousness, narcotism, and unavailability. Wilson’s meticulously-observed performance resonates, speaking to our unconscious, evolutionary desires.

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 Rescue

I, like many of you, was riveted by the news of a Thai soccer team trapped in flooded (and flooding) cave. The rescue was harrowing, and uncertain. The whole world watched. Now we get to reexperience this miraculous mission from all angles, not just what the media reported or the Thai government allowed. Or in my case, what my limited memory could recall.

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi stick to the unvarnished truth, and need little embellishment to make this a gripping, edge of your seat documentary. In June 2018, twelve members of soccer team The Wild Boars, aged 11-16, and their 25-year old assistant coach were playing in the Tham Luang cave when it flooded extremely quickly and over a month earlier than usual, trapping them inside. The water rose so quickly and the current was so strong that no contact was made for 11 long days. Imagine the mothers, fathers, friends, siblings, and grandparents assembled outside, praying for their safety, unsure of whether they were even still alive, knowing that if they were, they were cold, wet, hungry, sitting in darkness waiting to drown, waiting to die.

 The Thai Navy SEALs had no cave diving experience so they called in experienced recreational divers from around the world, like British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, who were the first to actually find the boys alive. It would be six more days before a rescue attempt was even made, a time during which approaches and methods were hotly debated, and both time and water were their enemy. The rescue operation involved more than 10,000 people, including more than 100 divers, thousands of rescue workers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers, and 2,000 soldiers.

At the time I was deeply invested in seeing those kids come out safely, and I perhaps didn’t appreciate the how much went into their rescue. Thanks to this doc, I have a better understanding of how everything went down: how excrutiatingly crucial each small detail was to the mission’s success, how easily it could all go wrong, how to drag children underwater for over three hours without them panicking, putting their own lives at risk as well as their rescuers. Ten police helicopters, 7 ambulances, more than 700 diving cylinders, and the pumping of more than a billion litres of water from the caves were all coordinated for this rescue effort’s success, and the truth is, the plan was improvised on the spot. No protocol existed for a mission that had never been attempted, never even thought possible. These volunteer divers put their lives on the line to save the children of strangers, and only their own bravery and faith got them through it.

I knew how this mission ended, but I was still riveted by its execution. In fact, the ending is made all the more extraordinary once you discover the true breadth of its ambition, the true depth of its risk.

The Rescue screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries. Look for it in theatres October 8.

Quickening

Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is a performing arts major at university, and is finding her dance class to be a particular challenge. She won’t admit this to her (over)protective mother, Aliya (Bushra Ashir Azeem), who thinks the North American university “lifestyle” will ruin Sheila’s chances for a reputable life, compromise her Pakistani values, and basically give her the opportunity to be negatively influenced by her peers, none of whom pass Aliya’s muster. The tension between mother and daughter is somewhat soothed by Sheila’s first love. But when her juggling act between parents, school, and boyfriend ultimately fails, Sheila’s breakdown is of a peculiar sort.

Pseudocyesis: a psychosomatic state that occurs without conception and is marked by some of the physical symptoms and changes in hormonal balance of pregnancy.

Sheila believes she is pregnant. She’s not, but she’s convinced she is, and she’s certainly going to stress out like she is. How will this affect parents, school, and boyfriend? Yeah, that’s exactly what Sheila’s worried about! Poor dear.

Azeem is quite lovely as Sheila, and this coming of age story is particularly complex. Sure you might feel lulled into a sense of security by the admirable cinematography, and the gently hypnotic score, eliciting a dream-like state much like the haze of first love. But make no mistake: inside, Sheila is roiling with conflict and self-doubt. The cultural expectation of pleasing one’s parents runs deep, but Sheila also years no break free and pursue her own ambitions, even if they’re outside the traditional life her parents have envisioned for her. Azeem is able to live in the skin of a second generation immigrant, with all the pressures and expectations bottling up inside, overwhelming her in part because she can’t really express them.

Writer-director Haya Waseem makes a bold choice assembling Azeem’s real-life family to play her on-screen one, but the risk pays off with an authentic-feeling bond that transcends culture. Quickening is a wonderful film about a universal stage in a young woman’s life, layered with cultural specificity for a cathartic journey about growing up, leaving home, and always being there for family.

Quickening is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

The Mad Women’s Ball

You have to hand it to the patriarchy: they set up an entire society designed to oppress women, to deprive them of any meaning or purpose in their lives, and then they act all surprised when it drives them crazy.

Of course, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) isn’t actually crazy, but she does speak to the dead. But even just nonconformity is reason enough to lock her up, and in the not-so-long-ago (1885), all you needed was one male relative to want to get rid of you, and a woman could be imprisoned in an insane asylum for life. Eugénie is in Salpêtrière, a Parisian asylum, where she befriends wins over a skeptical nurse, Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent). This nurse no-nonsense and scientifically inclined, but when her dead sister starts sending messages through Eugénie, even she must admit that this woman doesn’t belong here. Together, they plan Eugénie’s escape under the cover of Le bal des folles, the mad women’s ball.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this film is based on real events. Salpêtrière was a real asylum that locked up women and threw away the key based on some very flimsy excuses – and any who were actually crazy were mostly driven that way by the very men who committed them. The women were subjected to barbaric experiments, abused by staff, and the film (and the book upon which it is based) exposes the misogyny inherent in medicine at the time (not all of which has been eliminated today).

Thomas Jefferson once said “The measure of society is how it treats the weakest members,” a scathing indictment of himself, a slave owner, and every psychiatric hospital ever. The Mad Woman’s Ball was indeed a real event hosted ever year, inviting Paris’ high society to come and gawk at the mentally ill, all dressed up in cast-offs and costumes.

Mélanie Laurent writes and directs a story she makes seriously cinematic and strikes a timeless chord, showing the universality of society’s most interesting women being silenced, in board meetings or at the stake, but always one way or another. At the time, women were diagnosed “hysterical” for having an opinion; today she’s called “shrill” or “feminazi” or “sjw.” Bottom line: yes, there’s a message, a grimly timely one, but it’s also just a beautiful film that’s well-acted by an asylum’s worth of talented actresses, with a story to remember.

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles) is an official 2021 selection of TIFF.

Look for it on Amazon Prime!

Silent Night

Is TIFF the most wonderful time of the year? For a movie reviewer, it’s pretty close. Every year when the schedule gets locked down, I peruse the titles, research each film, and work up a short list of films I’d optimistically like to watch, if time was unlimited and schedules never conflicted and sleep was optional. In my trusty notebook, I write down titles, directors, actors, and a small blurb to job my memory as to what on earth I might be watching. I had “girl with ice cubes for teeth” and “quirky martial arts romance” and “Afro-sonic sci-fi musical”; for this one, I’d merely written “Keira Knightley Christmas movie.” I don’t normally love watching Christmas movies outside of December, but the chronology of film festivals is mystifying and not to be questioned.

What did I actually get?

A lovely Christmas party, actually, in which hostess Nell (Knightley) greets her friends and family for a fantastic meal, friendly reminiscence, merry making, followed by mass suicide.

It’s the end of the world, you see. That thing we keep predicting but doing nothing about. The environment collapses, sending a cloud of poison, more or less, into the world, where it is spreading death, horrible, horrible death, wherever it goes. Blood leaking out all your orifices kind of death. Not a great death. So the UK, generous to a fault, have provided their citizens with a suicide pill. Everyone’s enjoying one last Christmas with their families, and as the cloud approaches, the pill will ensure a peaceful death in the arms of loved ones instead of painful and bloody convulsions.

The movie broke my damn heart. The adults did their best to act jolly, or stoic when jolly couldn’t be produced, but the kids were confused and vulnerable. Nell and Simon (Matthew Goode) have three kids; the oldest, Art (Roman Griffin Davis) is old enough to be angry at what’s happening to him. He’s angry the adults neglected the environment until it came to this. He’s angry that his parents plan to murder him. He’s angry that he’s so helpless. I was angry too.

But mostly I was sad. Sad that we’d failed these kids, yes, but also sad that any parents had to make this choice, no choice at all really. Sad that there’s so little comfort to be had at the end of the world.

And I was a little impressed, impressed that writer-director Camille Griffin could use Christmas apocalypse to talk about privilege. Nell has the perfect old house to host her closest friends, their kids, and even semi-unwelcome plus ones (that would be Sophie, played by Lily-Rose Depp). But she’s also a citizen of a prosperous nation with efficient (enough) infrastructure. They’ve delivered a peaceful way out to its citizens – but not to everyone living within its borders. If you aren’t there legally, you’re not worth the pill that will save you needless agony. Even kids understand this inherent inequity, and if you think you can look a kid in the eye and attempt to justify it, you’ve got another thing coming. Come armed with kleenex; Silent Night sounds harmless but beneath its shiny gift wrap is scathing indictment and a death sentence for all.

Aloners

Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is a solitary 20-something creature. She’s the top employee at a call centre where everyone is insulated by a cubicle and a set of headphones, but even when the headphones are off, Jina eats alone. Earbuds in, she walks home in her little bubble, never glancing up from her phone. She doesn’t notice or respond to anyone – not the next door neighbour, nor her father, nor the thump from a nearby apartment.

One day, Jina’s treasured solitude is pierced thoughtlessly by her boss, demanding that she train a new employee, a responsibility not normally in Jina’s purview. Once her impenetrable forcefield has been breached, it’s quickly followed by a second, more troubling violation. Her neighbour is found dead, alone in his apartment. Does this worry her? Scare her? Certainly it makes her meditate on her own death, whether she’ll be alone in the end, whether that’s the end she’d want. Does Jina truly enjoy her aloneness, or is it actually motivated by a fear of rejection, or perversely, a fear of being alone?

For her debut feature, director Hong Sung-eun tackles the concept of holojok, a Korean phenomenon encompassing the growing number of people who prefer to live alone (already a third of homes in Seoul!). Whether this is a true preference or if people have just succumbed to their antisocial tendencies and fear of alienation is more or less what Aloners tries to address.

The film is subtle, tender, and rather intimate. Jina is never judged, and she’s clearly not alone in experiencing this strange dissonance. Gong strikes the perfect balance as a woman forced out of the comfort of her shell, negotiating a world she normally avoids. There’s not much in the way of plot let alone drama or tension, but Hong holds our interest by building layers of mood, complexity of thought, and a changing atmosphere that make Jina’s world feel full, even when there’s an absence of people.

Aloners is an official selection of TIFF21.