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#TIFF17 Reviews: Outside In, Stronger and Thelma

September 9, 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!

Outside In – ★★★ (out of 4) Chris (Jay Duplass) is 38-years-old and has just gotten out of prison after serving a twenty year sentence, thanks to the help of his former high school teacher Carol (Edie Falco).  Lonely after two decades away from the world, and devoid of much in the way of job opportunities, Chris develops intense feelings of attachment towards Carol, but she is trapped in her own way in a loveless marriage, which makes it hard for her to reciprocate them.  At the same time, Carol’s teenage daughter Hilde (Kaitlin Dever) also forms an unlikely friendship with Chris, feeling like an outsider and seeing him as another wayward soul.

Directed by Lynn Shelton, delivering her grittiest film to date following the sublime dramedy Your Sister’s Sister and the delightful coming of age comedy Laggies, Outside In provides an engaging and compassionate character study of an ex-convict relearning how to navigate the world.  Chris is in many ways stuck at eighteen, the age he was when he got put away, which is why he forms such a natural bond with Hilde.  They are able to hang out like high schoolers, despite their physical age gap, and their friendship is one of the most intriguing parts of the film.  Jay Duplass delivers an impressively understated performance, always allowing us to sympathize with his character, and he is backed up by expectedly solid work from Edie Falco and another impressive turn by Kaitlin Dever.  We only find out why Chris was even in jail partway through, and the film doesn’t dwell on it.  The point is instead to offer a humanizing portrait of somebody trying to get their life back on track after two decades in jail, and trying to navigate a world that is inherently different than the one they were forced to leave behind.  It’s in the carefully observed little moments that Outside In works so well, carried every step of the way by the completely natural performances of its excellent cast.

Stronger – ★★★½ (out of 4) Adapted from his memoir of the same name, Stronger recounts the true story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was standing near the finish line at the Boston Marathon in 2013 to cheer for his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslaney), when two terrorists set off a homemade pressure cooker bomb.  Jeff lost both his legs in the explosion, and came to be celebrated as a hero by people around the world, after the photo of him being helped by a man wearing a cowboy hat went viral, and he was able to aid in the investigation by identifying the bombers to police while in the hospital.  The film largely focuses on Jeff’s internal struggle with being hailed as a hero merely for surviving the worst event of his life.  While his downtrodden mother (Miranda Richardson), whom he still lives with, and the rest of his working class family encourage him to capitalize on the newfound fame, Jeff finds himself struggling to adapt to his new life and patch up his relationship to Erin, having to reconcile himself to the fact that he was only at the finish line to cheer her on.

Directed by David Gordon Green, making a departure from both his early indies and his later studio comedies, Stronger is a true story character drama done right, and the film is elevated every step of the way by its great cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal gives an absolute powerhouse performance here, whether in moments when he is trying with quiet desperation to do things for himself like use the toilet and take a bath, or the scenes where he completely breaks down, the camera lingering on the expressiveness of his face.  It’s a performance as courageous as it is devastating, and Jake Gyllenhaal throws himself into the intense physical demands of the role, serving to further cement him as one of the greatest actors of this generation.  Tatiana Maslaney also does excellent work, showing quiet strength as the on-again-off-again girlfriend who has to balance caring for Jeff with looking after her own emotional and physical wellbeing.  The last act builds with scene after scene of quietly gutting moments, before ending on an inspiring and bittersweet note.

Thelma – ★★½ (out of 4) Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a university student who is trying to get away from her fundamentalist parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Peterson), having moved away from home to live on campus and study in Oslo.  But when she starts having mysterious fainting spells, and also comes to fall in love with fellow female student Anja (Okay Kaya), Thelma starts to explore both her lesbian tendencies and the supernatural abilities that she seemingly possesses.  When her feelings get too intense, she appears to have the ability to control people and things with her mind, leading her to uncover buried secrets from her past.

Directed by Joachim Trier, who walks a careful balance between character drama, psychological thriller and supernatural horror movie, Thelma plays almost like a Norwegian version of Carrie crossed with elements of Black Swan.  Although it largely lacks the same impact or resonance of those films, and offers a somewhat clichéd tale of religious fundamentalism leading to repressed sexuality with extreme psychological side effects, Thelma offers enough suspenseful moments and cool stylistic touches to keep us intrigued from scene to scene.  The film affectively sets the stage with a chilling opening sequence, and the ending practically begs for another viewing to properly dissect it all.  The religious metaphors can feel a little heavy handed, like the visual of a temptuous snake sliding into Thelma’s mouth during a sexual fantasy with Anja, or the drips of red blood from her nose that drop into a glass of white milk, meant to symbolize the shattering of her purity.  But there are still enough elements that feel fresh to make this stylized and often intriguing film worth a look.

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