Toronto International Film Festival 2016 - UPDATE #2
Directed by Selma Vilhunen
A seriously subdued little movie, Little Wing follows 12-year-old Varpu (Linnea Skog) as she decides to seek out her biological father in light of her mother's increasingly erratic behavior. (The ensuing journey is predictably fraught with complications and revelations.) It's certainly not surprising to discover that writer/director Selma Vilhunen has experience as a documentarian, as Little Wing boasts a low-key, slice-of-life vibe that is, at the outset, focused on the day-to-day exploits of its sympathetic central character (eg Varpu questions her mom about her dad, Varpu goes horseback riding, Varpu hangs out with her less-than-savory friends, etc, etc). And although the dynamic between Varpu and her mother is familiar, to say the least (ie there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about a young child forced to grow up quickly in the face of a flighty parent), Little Wing benefits from a midsection that takes a few admittedly unexpected narrative left turns (eg Varpu's initial contact with her apparent biological father doesn't quite turn out as she might've hoped). It's just as clear, however, that the relentlessly dour vibe paves the way for a somewhat repetitive third act, as the almost constant barrage of misfortunes experienced by the protagonist becomes rather exhausting as time progresses (ie the viewer just wants one thing to go right for her, essentially) - with the predictably vague conclusion ensuring, in the end, that Little Wing comes off as a prototypically muted European drama.
Directed by Lutz Gregor
GERMANY/93 MINUTES/TIFF DOCS
Mali Blues follows singer Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares to return to her homeland for the first time in years, with Islamic fundamentalists controversially banning music in the Northern part of Mali for several months beginning in 2012. (Diawara first fled the country many years prior to escape an arranged marriage.) It's ultimately not difficult to see just what filmmaker Lutz Gregor is attempting to accomplish here, with the importance of the movie's message perpetuated through ongoing interviews with Diawara and an assortment of other local musicians. There's little doubt, however, that Gregor's less-than-propulsive sensibilities alienate the viewer virtually from the word go, and there is, as a result, never a point at which one is able to work up any interest in or sympathy for Diawara's exploits. It doesn't help, certainly, that Gregor seemingly has enough material here only for a 20 minute short, as Mali Blues has been disastrously padded out with a series of yawn-inducing musical performances from a variety of talented yet far-from-dynamic musicians (including an expert ngoni string instrument player and a rapper whose lyrics decry the aforementioned Islamic rule). There is, in the end, little within Mali Blues designed to appeal to the average viewer, with the movie's disastrous overlength ensuring that it would've fared much, much better as a segment on 60 Minutes (or some other like-minded news program).
Directed by Ashley McKenzie
Ashley McKenzie's directorial debut, Werewolf details the hardscrabble exploits of two junkies (Bhreagh MacNeil's Nessa and Andrew Gillis' Blaise) as they attempt to overcome instances of self-sabotage and mountains of bureaucracy to find better lives. It's immediately apparent that writer/director McKenzie has been heavily influenced by Lodge Kerrigan's body of work (but especially Clean, Shaven and Keane), as Werewolf boasts a similarly gritty and documentary-like vibe that's reflected in everything from the subdued performances to the jittery, handheld camerawork to the decidedly less-than-eventful narrative. It's clear, then, that the biggest impediment to Werewolf's success is its protagonists, with the actors' strong work rendered moot by McKenzie's inability to turn either Nessa or Blaise into wholeheartedly compelling and sympathetic figures. This is especially true of Gillis' almost impressively unlikable character; armed with as big a chip on his shoulder as one could envision, Blaise comes off as a combative, contemptible person that one can't help but root against. It is, as such, not terribly surprising that the viewer's interest wanes considerably as time slowly progresses, with the comically uneventful bent of McKenzie's screenplay ultimately ensuring that Werewolf feels much, much longer than its 78 minutes. (And what's up with that misleading title?)
Directed by Nathan Morlando
CANADA/104 MINUTES/SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
A rather generic thriller, Mean Dreams follows teenager Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins) as he meets and falls for neighbor Casey Caraway (Sophie Nélisse) - with problems ensuing after Casey's police-officer father (Bill Paxton's Wayne) forbids Jonas from spending any time with his daughter. It's interesting to note that Mean Dreams' opening stretch offers no indication of the violence that is to come, as filmmaker Nathan Morlando, working from a script by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby, offers up a sweet coming-of-age romance that's heightened by the affable work of stars Wiggins and Nélisse. The eventually shift into action-oriented territory is, however, somewhat jarring (to say the least), with the growing proliferation of hackneyed elements paving the way for a second half that generally unfolds as one might've predicted. There's little doubt, then, that Mean Dreams benefits substantially from an ongoing inclusion of suspenseful sequences, and it's impossible, also, not to get a kick out of Paxton's less-than-subtle, moustache-twirling turn as the movie's reprehensible villain. And although the second half contains too heavy an emphasis on the heroes' run-and-hide exploits, Mean Dreams ultimately comes off as an erratic yet mostly watchable rural thriller that builds to a fairly captivating final stretch.
Directed by Amanda Kernell
Set mostly in the 1930s, Sami Blood follows Indigenous teen Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) as she and her younger sister are sent to a boarding school designed to integrate their people into Swedish society - with problems eventually stemming from Elle Marja's growing desire to totally break away from her culture. First-time filmmaker Amanda Kernell does a superb job of establishing the central character and her rural environs, with the opening stretch, as a result, faring surprisingly well and boasting a number of low-key yet engrossing sequences. (It's just a shame that this portion of the proceedings contains a regrettable instance of animal cruelty.) Sami Blood, past that point and perhaps inevitably, segues into an almost excessively deliberate midsection that's as engaging as it is tiresome, with the film benefiting substantially from an ongoing emphasis on stirring images and interludes (including a harrowing scene in which Elle Marja is examined by a callous visiting doctor). There's little doubt, as well, that Elle Marja's tentative relationship with a Swedish college student is charming and compelling, and it certainly does become less and less difficult to see why Elle Marja would want to leave her family and community behind. It is, however, all-too-apparent that Sami Blood's often unreasonably slow pace, compounded by an overlong running time, prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connect to the material, which is a shame, certainly, given the inherently intriguing narrative and Sparrok's often devastating performance.