Piers Marchant at the Toronto International Film Festival, Day TwoSeptember 7, 2019
Best Film of the Day: The Sleepwalkers
Waves: One of the early-buzz winners in the early days of the festival, Trey Edward Shults’ film is nothing but structurally audacious, switching gears suddenly about two-thirds of the way in, and adding a lengthy denouement that extends almost into another film entirely. It’s not unlike what Derek Cianfrance attempted with the misbegotten Place Beyond the Pines, though not nearly as catastrophic. The first part of the film deals with a high-achieving high schooler named Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whose successful father (Sterling K. Brown) pushes him hard to be the best he can in all phases of his life. As the film begins, Tyler seems to have it all – wealthy family, beautiful home, athletic ability, good grades, and a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), whom he identifies as “Goddess” on his phone, but it’s clear, somehow this won’t last. After he’s diagnosed with a serious shoulder injury, everything starts rapidly falling apart for Tyler, who starts popping pain pills, renouncing his relationship, and heading into chaos. Before too long, he’s lost everything, including the handle on his emotions, and things take a tragic turn. In the aftermath of this, the film moves onto other relationships, including Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who, though devastated at the turn of events, begins dating a sweet boy (Lucas Hedges), who was on the same wrestling team as her brother; and Tyler’s parents, whose relationship is suffering after their family drama. To be fair, Shults is after a pretty big catch, and the audaciousness of the film – with its swinging camera, and loopy visuals – serves it well at times, and with the actors’ performances, which are extraordinary. But Tyler’s descent from beloved honors student to tweaking, rampaging monster is like something out of Reefer Madness, and as much as the second section of the movie works as an antidote to the first, there’s a serious question of why Shults didn’t just start there in the first place.
The Sleepwalkers: A far more conventional film, Paula Hernández’ familial drama dealing with frazzled mother, Luisa (Erica Rivas), her husband, and their beautiful 15-year-old girl, Ana (Ornella D’elía), as they travel yet again to vacation at her husband’s family’s estate with the rest of his extended family. As tensions rise in the country house – there is talk by the family matriarch of selling the place, while small resentments between everyone start to simmer – another, wilder cousin (Rafael Federman) returns for the first time in several years, and further disrupts any sense of familial harmony. The Argentinian Hernández has made a film, as with the work of American filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko, that feels fully lived in, the relationships between the characters offers a real sense of history, their connections organically composed. There are many scenes of dialogue between them where they talk about details of past exploits, or make reference to things that are never actually explained, that adds an air of realism to the proceedings. The ending, typically, is inconclusive, and there is little sense of plot resolution, but what we’re given instead is the sense of the relationships that will endure, surviving these stormy seas.
Vitalina Varella: For those with pervasive sense of claustrophobia, I would suggest either watching in small doses, or steering clear altogether. Pedro Costa’s film, set in ruined cement-block slums of Lisbon, is almost entirely nocturnal, the harsh light of a single, naked bulb illuminating only those things immediately surrounding it, and casting the rest into pitch-black shadow. The story is minimal, a man dies of some sort of lung disease, largely alone in his squalid flat, and his estranged wife (Vitalina Varella, playing a thinly fictionalized version of herself), who had been happily living in Cape Verde without him, finally flies out to ruminate over what her husband left behind. Utilizing long, mostly static shots (gorgeously composed by Leonardo Simoes), with actors moving at half-speed, languidly moving through the frame, Costa achieves a sort of living photography. It’s a film you appreciate more than you actually enjoy, but the beauty of its imagery, and the riveting performances from the non-professional cast give it a significant luster. And it makes you fully appreciate those few times in which Costa does fill his screen with light.
Tomorrow: I begin my day with the sci-fi thriller Vast of Night; check in on Workforce; watch Sea Fever; shift to big-budget Hollywood with Rian Johnson’s Knives Out; and close the evening with the bloody Brazilian/French co-production, Bacurau.