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#TIFF17 Reviews: On Chesil Beach, Call Me By Your Name, High Fantasy and Porcupine Lake

September 8, 2017

By John Corrado

The Toronto International Film Festival is on until September 17th, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

On Chesil Beach – ★★★½ (out of 4) Adapted from Ian McEwan’s bestselling novella, and beautifully brought to the screen by first time director Dominic Cooke, On Chesil Beach is a classic romantic drama that engages simply because of the strength of its characters and storytelling.  The year is 1962, and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are a young couple who have just gotten married and are spending the first night of their honeymoon at a guest house by the English seaside.  Edward has natural hopes for what the night will entail, but when things move into more sexual territory, Florence grows increasingly uncomfortable with exploring this aspect of their relationship.  As flashbacks reveal more of their backstory, showing Florence as an accomplished violinist who comes from a well-off but somewhat distant family, a very different life from Edward’s more rural working class upbringing, we come to understand both what drew them together and the chasm that is slowly forming between them.

The film is compelling in the moments when it is a chamber piece between the two central characters, as it slowly becomes evident that there is an imbalance between what they both want from the relationship, leaving a void that might never be able to be filled.  When Florence’s reluctance to expressions of sexuality comes to the forefront, the story takes some genuinely interesting turns in the last act, leading to a standout scene between the young couple that unfolds on the beach.  The film becomes a fascinating look at intimacy within marriage, that challenges traditional perceptions of repressed sexuality and what constitutes love.  Both Billy Howle and Saorise Ronan deliver quietly remarkable performances, playing off each other with chemistry and simmering tension, making us feel every glance, every carefully mannered conversation and finally every argument that comes between them.  The film builds towards a real tearjerker of an epilogue, culminating in a beautifully composed and quietly heartbreaking final shot that lingers long afterwards.

Call Me By Your Name – ★★★ (out of 4) Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a 17-year-old vacationing in Italy, where his art professor father (Michael Stuhlburg) is working for the summer.  When his father’s new research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives from America and comes to stay with the family, Elio starts to become infatuated with him, leading to a summer of tentative sexual awakening, as the bisexual teenager comes to have his first relationship with a man.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, and based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name is an art film that luxuriates in both physical passion and the natural beauty of Italy.  This has caused many audiences to understandably fall under its spell, but I wasn’t as high on the film as others have been.  The story is fairly simple and feels somewhat devoid of conflict or struggle for large parts of the 132 minute running time, which can make it feel somewhat slow moving.  But there are still some wonderful moments here, the peach scene notwithstanding, and the film is often enjoyable to watch thanks to its sensuous cinematography, lovely classical score, and solid performances from its attractive leads.  Armie Hammer is allowed to impressively show more of his acting range, and Timothée Chalamet proves himself to be an incredibly promising young star, with the two of them sharing plenty of enjoyable chemistry together.  Michael Stuhlburg is also excellent as the understanding father, with the film’s best moment being a poignant and beautifully written scene between him and Timothée Chalamet at the end that brings deeper meaning to the film’s story of sexual awakening.

High Fantasy – ★★★ (out of 4) When four young adult friends – Xoli (Qondiswa Jones), Lexi (Francesca Varrie), Tatiana (Liza Scholtz) and lone male Thami (Nala Khumalo) – take a camping trip to Lexi’s family farm property in the Northern Cape of South Africa, simmering tensions between them exist right from the start.  Xoli views the whole trip through a colonialist narrative, and is openly resentful of the fact that Lexi’s white family took over the land from her black ancestors, and the three girls call out Thami’s talk of hooking up as sexist.  Then they wake up in each other’s bodies, forcing them to literally see things through another person’s eyes, across both racial and gender lines.

Shot on iPhones, and utilizing interview-style scenes of the characters talking to the camera to expand its story and add to the found footage feel, High Fantasy is a slyly inventive work from director Jenna Bass, that feels both visually and thematically fresh.  The film is short at just over seventy minutes, but it’s packed with fascinating themes of racial and gender tensions, and crafted with simmering suspense, using its fantastical body swapping story to explore the divisions that still exist in post-apartheid South Africa, poking holes in the utopian idea of a peaceful “rainbow nation.”  The film cleverly uses the high concept of its premise to explore timely themes of identity, forcing its characters to confront not only their own inherent biases but also the internalized guilt that can be born out of other people’s prejudice.

Porcupine Lake – ★★ (out of 4) Bea (Charlotte Salisbury) is a shy and awkward tween girl from Toronto who travels with her mother (Delphine Roussel) to a small town in Northern Ontario, where her father (Christopher Bolton) has inherited the local diner.  While her parents struggle to patch up their fraying marriage, Bea strikes up a friendship with Katie (Lucinda Armstrong Hall), a local girl with a troubled home life, and the two of them start exploring their blossoming sexuality.

Written and directed by indie filmmaker Ingrid Veninger, crafting her most easily accessible work to date thanks to the help of executive producer Melissa Leo, Porcupine Lake is a small Canadian film that sadly offers nothing new to the coming of age genre, and fails to even provide an interesting take on its familiar adolescent themes.  The characters here simply aren’t well enough defined for the film to work, with various traits and quirks that feel shoehorned in, like Bea’s fainting condition, which only seems to be there to give her mother another reason to be overprotective.  Equally ill-defined is the character of Katie’s psychopathic older brother (Harrison Tanner), who acts erratically and often lashes out violently, which the film blames on an acquired brain injury, leading to a completely needless (but obviously fake) scene of animal abuse.  The cinematography is good, but ultimately can’t mask the various elements here that really don’t work.  A Canadian coming of age movie should have been right up my alley, but Porcupine Lake is both too clichéd and not well enough written to be compelling.

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