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#TIFF16 Reviews: A Monster Calls, Lion, Katie Says Goodbye, Boys in the Trees and Manchester By the Sea

September 17, 2016

By John Corrado

manchester-by-the-sea-posterWe have finally reached the end of the Toronto International Film Festival, and below are my thoughts on five more films that I got to see over the last few days.  Please come back tomorrow for my final set of reviews, and you can find information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

A Monster Calls (Gala Presentations): Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) keeps having a terrifying nightmare where his mother (Felicity Jones), who is dying of cancer, is falling into a sinkhole at the cemetery, and he is barely able to hold on to her hand.  Bullied at school, and being sent to live with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor is lonely and struggling to cope with the imminent death of his beloved mother.  Then he gets a midnight visit from a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who vows to tell him three stories, if Conor promises to tell the fourth story once he is done.  The monster’s visits bring about increasing destruction, which spills over into the real world, forcing Conor to finally confront his deep emotional pain.

With undertones of an Amblin production from the 1980s, A Monster Calls is the rarest of things nowadays, a family film that is as much for older kids as it is for adults, and is unafraid of going dark and exploring sensitive themes involving death and grief.  Adapting the bestselling young adult novel of the same name, director J.A. Bayona has delivered a beautifully made and often thrilling film that hits with deep emotion and unfolds with arresting visual style.  The titular monster is impressively brought to life, with his branches and fiery eyes making him a striking big screen wonder that is impossible to look away from.  The stories that the monster tells all hold deeper allegorical meaning, and unfold through several beautifully rendered animated sequences that provide some of the most visually stunning moments in the film.  Also excellent are the performances.  Lewis MacDougal carries it all with an emotional maturity that seems beyond his years, and Liam Neeson’s gravelly voice work strikes the perfect balance between tough and melancholic, adding another layer of depth to his character.  Felicity Jones delivers a moving supporting role.  This is a haunting and deeply moving film, that uses its fantastical elements to bravely address grief head on.

Lion (Special Presentations): Based on the true story of Saroo Brierly’s journey to reconnect with his birth family after getting lost on the streets of India over twenty years earlier, Lion is a moving and inspiring family drama.  The first half of the film follows him as a young boy (Sunny Pawar), who gets separated from his older brother (Abhishek Bharate) and ends up on a train for several days that takes him to Calcutta, where he doesn’t speak the language and is largely ignored like the rest of the street kids, until he gets taken to an orphanage and is adopted by a couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) in Australia.  The second half takes place over two decades later, with Saroo as a young adult (Dev Patel) who has settled into a comfortable life, having a girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and getting a college degree.  But he is still searching for unanswered questions about his past, and with the help of Google Earth, he starts mapping out every train station that he possibly could have gotten on, despite barely remembering the name of the small village where he lived, meticulously retracing the journey he took as a child to reconnect with the family that he lost.

Although a few elements of Saroo’s early life in India have been glossed over here from his excellent book A Long Way Home, which can make the beginning of the film feel a bit rushed, Lion is an engaging and often stirring retelling of this incredible true story.  The film is carried on the shoulders of both Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel, who deliver a pair of excellent performances that compliment each other quite nicely.  Sunny Pawar perfectly portrays both the wide-eyed innocence and terror of being lost that was felt by Saroo as a young boy, and Dev Patel brilliantly depicts him as a young man haunted by his past, struggling to reconcile the love he has for his adoptive parents with his intense need to reconnect with his birth family.  It’s his best work since Slumdog Millionaire.  Nicole Kidman is also strong in her emotional supporting role.  Directed by Garth Brooks, Lion is a powerful and well acted drama, that offers many emotional scenes as it builds towards the moving and ultimately uplifting final moments.

Katie Says Goodbye (Discovery): Katie (Olivia Cooke) works at a truck stop diner in a tiny New Mexico town, using her paycheques to support her single mother (Mireille Enos) and pay the rent on their trailer, and making extra money by selling her body for sex.  When she falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), a dimwitted ex-convict who works at the local garage, Katie believes that her life is getting better, but tensions unexpectedly start to rise around her small community, leaving her shockingly violated.  Although Olivia Cooke gives a very good performance in Katie Says Goodbye, writer-director Wayne Roberts lets her down somewhat by writing her character in a way that makes her seem far too simplistic and naive.  There’s also just never any compelling reason to believe why she is even in a relationship with Bruno, and he’s so thinly written that it’s hard to know what she even sees in him, leaving promising young actor Christopher Abbott to seem utterly lost in the role.  Although Mary Steenburgen and Jim Belushi provide bright spots in fine supporting roles, Katie Says Goodbye is a clichéd piece of poverty porn that treads a familiar path in its depiction of broken small town lives, and its treatment of disturbing subject matter involving rape and sexual assault is largely mishandled and feels unintentionally exploitive.

Boys in the Trees (Discovery): Taking place on Halloween in 1997, the last day of school in Australia, Boys in the Trees follows Corey (Toby Wallace) and Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a pair of teenagers who used to be friends but have drifted apart, as Jonah is now severely bullied by the gang of skater punks that Corey hangs out with.  When Corey and Jonah end up alone, Jonah convinces him to revive an old game they used to play together as kids back when they were friends, leading them on a dark and mythical odyssey through the streets of trick-or-treaters that is equal parts fairy tale and nightmare.

An ambitious mix of fantasy, horror, angsty coming of age drama and haunting anti-bullying parable, Boys in the Trees is a unique film that provides an impressive feature debut for young director Nicholas Verso.  The film instantly draws us in with its moody visual style, and the atmospheric and perfectly realized Halloween setting adds a spooky vibe to the story that really helps it get under our skin, all set to a solid soundtrack of dark ’90s songs.  Although it does run a bit long and could have been tightened up a little to have an even greater impact, there are a lot of interesting ideas and elements on display here that stick with us and deserve attention.  The screenplay thoughtfully touches on ideas of adolescent masculinity and how many boys find themselves scared to grow up, weaving these themes organically into its elements of horror and dark fantasy.

Manchester By the Sea (Special Presentations): Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a working class janitor in Boston, spending his days doing odd jobs for people in the apartment buildings where he works, and his nights at the bar drinking and sometimes getting into fights.  But when he gets the call that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from cardiac arrest, Lee goes back to his seaside Massachusetts hometown to plan the funeral.  What he discovers is that he has been appointed legal guardian to his teenaged nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a popular high schooler who acts upbeat and busies himself with hockey practise and his two girlfriends as a way to mask the pain of losing his father.  Being back in his old town, and going through the arduous process of estate planning, Lee is forced to confront the pain of his past and the ex-wife (Michelle Williams) he left behind.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, only his third film in sixteen years, Manchester By The Sea is a masterful and beautifully written look at how grief affects different people.  The story is seamlessly told in a dual narrative, between flashbacks and current day, allowing the past and present to flow freely into each other as we slowly uncover Lee’s backstory and how it has effected him.  The film is centred around Casey Affleck’s haunted and deeply moving performance as a broken man trying to reconcile his tragic past with his new role as a guardian, and it’s nuanced and brilliantly understated work that pushes the actor to a whole new level.  Lucas Hedges is also excellent, developing a great rapport with Casey Affleck and making the familial bond between their characters compelling to watch.  This is an absorbing and richly textured character drama, that mixes scenes of devastating emotion with instances of tension-breaking humour, finding its rich nuances and most powerful moments through the way it so beautifully observes the interactions between its characters.

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