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#TIFF16 Reviews: India in a Day, Moonlight, American Honey, The Salesman and Mean Dreams

September 8, 2016

By John Corrado

moonlight-posterThe 2016 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is getting started tonight, with the sure to be star-studded world premiere of The Magnificent Seven.  I’ve been busy screening films in advance over the last few weeks, and below are my thoughts on five of the ones I’ve seen so far, to give you a small sampling of what to expect from this year’s lineup.  They are arranged in order of when they first screen.

There are plenty more that I’m excited to watch over the next ten days, and several others that I’ve already seen but am strictly embargoed from talking about as of yet, so please come back tomorrow and throughout the rest of the festival for more capsule reviews.  You can find information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

India in a Day (TIFF Docs): Following the global project Life in a Day, India in a Day is a crowdsourced documentary assembling snippets of amateur footage shot by people over the course of October 10th, 2015.  Beautifully edited together to play as a complete whole under the direction of Richie Mehta, the footage they have captured ranges from playful to introspective, offering an always engaging kaleidoscopic portrait of life and culture in modern India.  Some of the film’s most touching moments include a single mother using the few minutes she has to herself in a day to reflect upon her life and past regrets, and a man spending his birthday visiting his beloved older brother who is dying from brain cancer.  Many of the subjects also reflect upon the social changes that have happened in the country, and the progress that can still be made in terms of women’s rights and gender equality, exemplified by a visit to a restaurant owned and operated entirely by transgender people that provides them with a rare place to be employed and also accepted.  Altogether, India in a Day is a vibrant, joyous and sometimes moving portrait of life unfolding as it happens, and the range of moments that real people experience on any given day.

Moonlight (Platform): The story of a young black man and how his life changes over three decades as he comes to terms with being gay, Moonlight is a heartbreaking work of art, that has a profound lasting impact.  The film opens with Chiron as an extremely shy young boy (Alex R. Hibbert) in Miami, who is chased by bullies and ends up being taken under the wing of drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Paula (Janelle Monáe), who become like a surrogate guardians to him, as his birth mother (Naomie Harris) struggles with addiction.  We next see him as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), struggling with his sexuality and being relentlessly bullied for it, but sparking a complicated friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).  The last half of the film shows Chiron as an adult (Trevante Rhodes), and how the experiences and people from his youth have helped shape him, for better and for worse.

Director Barry Jenkins handles every moment with a sensitive and intimate touch, as he ingeniously structures the story in three distinct acts, each one painting a portrait of the different stages the lead character goes through as he explores his identity.  Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes deliver a trio of nuanced and deeply felt performances, all bringing different shades to versions of the same character, that play seamlessly into each other to create a complete arc.  Mahershala Ali is also exceptional in his supporting role, delivering an unforgettable performance that is both confident and deeply moving.  Beautifully and evocatively shot, Moonlight is a reflective film, often jumping between scenes and unfolding like a collection of memories, being looked back over and examined for the ripple effect they have had.  This is a film that feels both intimate and expansive in the way it captures the story of a life and how it is changed by defining moments along the way, ending on a note that is as blindingly powerful for what it represents as it is for all it leaves unsaid.

American Honey (Special Presentations): A passion project for director Andrea Arnold, American Honey is an epic in its own right, a road movie that quietly explores the hidden pockets of America where real people live their lives, struggling with ways to make money and dealing with the reality of dreams dashed to poverty.  Escaping her troubled life in Texas, which includes dumpster diving for food and taking care of her two younger siblings, Star (Sasha Lane) runs away from home and hits the road with a crew of poverty-stricken youth who travel the country in a white van, selling magazine subscriptions in rich neighbourhoods.  Star gets teamed up with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a slick and unpredictable hustler who sets out to show her the tricks of the trade, and also embarks on an affair with him that seems built purely around physical passion.

Clocking in at close to three hours, American Honey will test the patience of some, but I found it to flow with a rhythm that becomes almost hypnotic to watch, a film more interested in evoking moods than having a traditional plot.  Shia Labeauf delivers one of his finest performances, blurring the line between character and actor as he infuses Jake with unhinged and almost manic energy that permeates through the screen.  Sasha Lane is transfixing to watch, emerging like a breakout star.  Robbie Ryan’s free flowing cinematography keeps us gripped, framed within a square aspect ratio, and the soundtrack offers an entire playlist of great tracks.  Like all great road movies, American Honey is a film that allows us to get lost in the journey, and all the joyful, somber and unexpectedly moving moments that come along the way.  This is a major achievement, a film that captures the feeling of being young and all the spontaneity and energy that comes with it.  It’s a sprawling, engaging and beautifully filmed portrait of youth lost in America, that is easy to get lost in and has several sequences that leave a lasting impact.

The Salesman (Special Presentations): After being forced to flee their Tehran apartment due to construction that threatens to topple the building, Emad (Shabab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) take out a lease on a shabby new room.  But the old tenant refuses to remove her stuff, and when an incident occurs involving a mysterious visitor that sends Rana to the hospital, Emad becomes determined to get answers and maybe even seek vengeance.  As their lives start to unspool, the husband and wife try to keep it together to perform in a censored amateur theatre production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but their real life drama starts spilling over onto the stage.  Winning the Best Actor and Best Screenplay prizes at Cannes, The Salesman is another engaging morality play from filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who continues to use a humanistic touch to explore characters who are struggling with the greater implications of their decisions, against the backdrop of modern Iran.  Although it isn’t quite as powerful as his previous films A Separation and The Past, of which it can feel somewhat derivative, The Salesman unfolds in intriguing shades of grey, and keeps us watching with solid performances and a quietly simmering sense of suspense that is set up in the harrowing opening scene.

Mean Dreams (Special Presentations): Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins) lives on a struggling rural farm property, with a severely depressed mother (Vickie Papavs) and a father (Joe Cobden) who keeps him out of school and expects him to work in the fields.  When Casey Caraway (Sophie Nélisse) moves into a nearby farmhouse with her police officer father Wayne (Bill Paxton), the two teens start to form a close relationship with each other.  But there is trouble afoot, and when Jonas witnesses Casey being abused by her father, a series of events is set in motion that puts them on the run with a bag of stolen cash, struggling to escape their troubled lives.  Following his promising and ambitious debut feature Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster, a big hit at the festival several years ago, director Nathan Morlando continues to show a sure hand behind the camera with his gripping second feature Mean Dreams.

Seamlessly balancing elements of both character drama and crime thriller, the film envelopes us in a moody atmosphere that keeps tightening the screw in terms of tension.  Josh Wiggins displays an intensity beyond his years and does an excellent job of carrying the film, and Sophie Nelisse affectingly portrays a character who is forced to make mature decisions that threaten to change her entire life, as the film reaches its dark but almost inevitable conclusion.  Shot in Northern Ontario, the film is beautifully photographed by Steve Cosens, with the wheat fields and wooded landscapes appearing both inviting and dangerous.  Anchored by a pair of engaging performances from its two young leads, and menacing supporting work by Bill Paxton, Mean Dreams is a gripping coming of age thriller, wrought with near-constant suspense flowing through its veins.

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